Sunday, 30 June 2013

Escape from Panama

Taking in the view of the impressive Panama City skyline... until my bum started to burn from the heat of the stone.
Having arrived in Panama City in the late afternoon of the 4th of June little did I know that I was going to spend as much time in this city as I eventually did. Rowan was flying out on the 9th so he needed a few days to get his bike packed and shipped, I needed to replace some items that had been robbed weeks earlier in Guatemala, we needed to visit the sights like the Panama Canal, but most importantly a night or two on the town to mark the end of a fantastic few months travelling together. 
The lads hitting it hard with our glasses of water for Rowan's last night in Central America. Fancy new jeans and all, clearly no longer a touring cyclist!

We stayed at a nice clean hostel called Villa Vento Surf and then moved to Adrian Bisonard’s, a lovely and very welcoming Argentinian who I became good friends with through Couch Surfing. Adrian generously put me up for a few days after I bid an emotional farewell to Rowan.

Building in Casco Viejo (the old town)

Street in Casco Viejo
Modern Panama City
Upon arriving in Panama City I had also started to do some research on how best to make it to Colombia as believe it or not there is no road connecting Central America to South America. The Darien Gap lies between the two borders, a dense jungle and a complete no go area due to the presence of drug traffickers, bandits and kidnappers. (Not sure if they are 3 distinct catagories or if there is a bit of cross over in their job description). I remember reading the blog of an Australian ultra runner who was running the length of the two continents and he actually ran through the Darian Gap but with a heavily armed platoon escorting him all the way and the photos looked akin to the army group in the Predator movie. I didn’t have a special forces platoon to call on so it was either going to be a boat or plane to Colombia for me. By far the most popular backpacker route between Panama and Colombia is to get a yacht on the Caribbean side of Panama and sail to Cartagena in Colombia via a few days on the beautiful archipelago of the San Blas Islands. Unfortunately this option is extremely expensive and certainly well outside of my budget but having talked with my Alaskan Pan American cycling friends ( who were a few weeks ahead of me they advised trying to get a deal with one of the yachts.  So I was finally back on the bike for the 120 km spin to the beautiful little port town of Portobelo. I passed the iconic Panama Canal which had some enormous ships passing through it and cycled through some incredible lush jungle.

The aptly named Blue Whale being maneuvered into position to go through the Mira Flores locks on the Panama Canal
The Wallenius Wilhelmsen squeezing its way through the Mira Flores locks on the Panama Canal.
Miraflores Locks
It was a big thrill to set eyes on the Caribbean for the first time in my life and having cycled close to the Pacific on and off since Vancouver it was unusual to have the sea on my left and not my right hand side for once.

One of my first sightings of the Caribean
Sheltering from a downpour on the road to Portobelo.
When I got to Portobelo I met Michel, whom I knew from Panama City and he introduced me to his fellow French man Julien. Similar to myself, Julien was looking to try and work a deal to see if he could get to Cartagena for a bit cheaper than the usual USD 500 plus normally required to do the sailing to Cartagena. After a few days talking to as many people as possible, the hostel owner,  a friendly American called Captain Jack put us in touch with Bea, a Polish woman who had been sailing one of the bigger boats on the route for the last three years.  She told myself and Julien that we could go on the boat for free if we got enough paying passengers and worked on the boat for the five days during the sailing. This was a risk as it is the low season and there are more boats looking to travel than there are passengers … a risk we were both obviously willing to take for a shot at a yacht to Cartagena via the San Blas!

The old Spanish colonial fort at Portobelo
Colonial firepower
I locked my bike to a bed in Captain Jack’s hostel, left most of my gear and back myself and Julien bused to Panama City to hit the hostels looking for backpackers. I have visited some amazing cities on this trip but Panama City is not one of them. I had been quite happy to leave the few days previous on my bike. It is a strange city with an impressive skyline but when you look closer you realize that many of the skyscrapers lie vacant, not that this stops them from throwing more up. It is not a bike or pedestrian friendly city at all. Once you’ve seen the canal and Casco Viejo (the old town) you’ve done Panama City. Julien and I walked the length and breadth of this hot humid city for five and half days hitting the hostels from 7 am to into the earlier hours. I talked to what felt like hundreds of backpackers over the few days.  Despite it not looking good for the first few days after a late rally Julien and I just about had enough passengers for the sailing to happen.  Phew.

We bused back to Portobelo on Saturday morning to be ready to go for customs at noon as we had been told. By 8 pm that night we were still sitting in Captain Jacks and most of the guys were wondering what was going on, this as well as the Bea threatening to put one of the passengers onto another boat didn’t make for the best of starts to the trip.
But by 9 pm that night we were all on the boat and slowly making our way out of Portobelo harbor. Julien and I high fived each other, equally relieved and excited to be heading to Cartagena on a yacht. We had missed customs but were told that we could do it at the Panamanian port of El Porvenir further on the next morning.  That night was spent on the open sea sailing towards San Blas, it was rocky and most people were sea sick. I somehow managed to avoid it thankfully.

When Bea arrived back with our passports from the customs office at El Porvenir the next morning she dropped a bombshell. She told us that apparently Colombian customs/immigration are cracking down on the backpacker yacht route to Cartagena and that she could no longer sail to Colombia as it would incur an extra USD 100 charge per person and that her boat would additionally have to pay over USD 1,000. She told us that we would still be spending three days at the San Blas but that she would drop us at the Panama Colombia border and that we could get a lancha (speedboat) over the border and make our own way to Cartagena. I was disappointed. I had looked into the option of getting speedboats down along the coast but had decided against it as lugging my bike and bags on and off speed boats would not do the bike any favors. As well as the more important fact that the speedboats eventually get you to a town called Turbo which is a bit dodgy and I had been warned against cycling out of Turbo, also some touring cyclists had been robbed on this road a few weeks previous. I had really wanted to sail to Cartagena. I wasn’t the only one and the captain seemed somehow surprised when some of the passengers questioned her as to what was going on. The atmosphere between the captain and the passengers soured and she ended up falling out with and threatening the majority of the group.

The passengers were a nice bunch and this set back was not going to take from our time on the beautiful San Blas islands. Obviously Julien and I still had to do some work on the boat but we still had lots of time on the beautiful San Blas. I found it quite amusing at times to be scrubbing pots and pans off the back of the boat in this most beautiful of locations. Certainly not your usual view from the sink when you’re doing the dishes!

Scrub a dub dub
The San Blas are an archipelago of around 367 islands and part of the third biggest reef in the world. The islands are resident to the indigenous Kuna people who govern the area as an autonomous region of Panama. We spent the most time on a beautiful island called Turtle Island/ Isla Tortuga. We had dinner on the island two of the nights and I even had the opportunity to spend a night in a hammock on Turtle island. Tough work indeed!

Happy to have arrived at the San Blas
The beautiful turtle island where we were able to spend two nights
Beach at Turtle Island
Volley ball net, never did round to having a game, too busy snorkling and snoozing..
The waves crashing on the reef out in the distance. By the island was very calm.


Looking at these photos I miss San Blas already.
We arrived at the Panama Colombia border relatively early on the Thursday morning. Most people were keen to get off the boat at that stage but Julien and another French guy called Gaetan opted to stay another night on the boat. In the rush to get everything off the yacht and onto the speedboat I only realized that I was after leaving a bag on the yacht when I got to the Colombian fishing villiage of Capurgana. Despite planning to trying to push onwards that day I had to spend the night in Capurgana to wait for the guys with my bag the next morning. The speedboat to Turbo only leaves once early in the morning so I had missed that. I had already decided that once reaching Turbo on the speedboats that I was going to get a bus north to Cartagena where I had always hoped to start the South American leg of the cycle. Cartagena was just proving a difficult place to get to! Capurgana is a quaint little fishing village with plenty of tourism so despite not initially being on the itinerary it was a good opportunity to check it out. The only other person sharing my dorm was a smiley Irish girl called Alice so it was nice to have someone to talk about the recession with. I had arranged to meet Julien and Gaeten at 7am the next morning to get my bag from them and travel together to Turbo and onwards. I stood on the busy dock with my packed up bike (minus the missing bag) for three hours having watched the boat to Turbo fill up and long since depart. I presumed something must have been up as I wheeled the bike the short distance in town looking for a cheaper place to stay. Julien showed up an hour later with the unfortunate explanation. When the two lads had arrived back to the boat the previous afternoon, Captain Bea, still not done fighting with passengers, had decided to kick poor Gaetan off the boat! He spent the night camping in the smaller neighboring village of Zapsuro. When he woke in a torrential downpour at 3am to check that his belongings were not getting wet he realized that he had been robbed.  Gaetan and three other nearby backpackers had all been robbed. So they had spent the morning in the police station. Another day in Capurgana.

The fishing village of Capurgana

On Saturday we finally managed to get bike and all of our bags onto the speedboat for the bumpy 2 and half hour ride to Turbo. There was a lot of rubbish dumped into the water as we sped our way to the pier upon arrival in Turbo. What a sight. It was like something out of an end of the world film. The really narrow pier was about 1 metre wide but still had about 15 lads standing on it to add to the crowd and shouting at everyone as to where we they planning on going next in order to try and get them on their particular taxi or minibus. People were almost climbing over each other as they scrambled off the boat. Trying to safely maneuver my heavy bike off the boat and onto the packed dock was a piece of cake! So it seemed like there were only two places we could possibly be going as tourists with the welcome party  asking if we were going to Cartagena or Medellin? ..Julien and I for Cartagena and Gaetan for Medellin por favor! An hour later after a slightly paranoid trip to my first ATM in Colombia, the bike was heavily strapped to the back of a jeep and we were thankfully making our way out of Turbo for the 4 hour motor rallay to Monterea, the half way point where we would change buses for Cartagena. I was happier to be getting on the larger airconditined bus for the 6 hours to Cartagena.  6 hours turned out to be longer due to a traffic accident so it was approaching midnight when Julien, Jesa (American girl we bused with from Turbo) and I staggered out of the cold airconditioned bus into the bang of humidity at Cartagena main bus station. After a few calls to hostels it appeared that there was no room at the inn due to a bank holiday weekend. Thankfully the taxi driver got us a convenient place on one of the main strips before they shut up for the night. It had been a while getting there but I had finally made it with a fully intact bike to Cartagena. CARTAGENA BABY… YEAH!!!

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