PANAMA, 22nd April – 19th May 2019
I suppose if my decision to quit the 100 countries challenge in order to spend more time with Dea were truly going to go down in history as one of the great romantic gestures, then I should really have got back on my bike and cycled back to her as quickly as I’d cycled away from her. But I was tired, and she’d moved, and logically the best place for us to meet would be on the Pacific side of Panama, in a town called David, in a little over a week. That delay was good, however, because it gave me the chance to lie down and rest my exhausted body for a couple of days before I had to get it moving again.
I took the bigger once-a-day ferry back from Bocas to Almirante, a much more slow-and-steady ride with my bike significantly less likely to fly off into the water, which as an added bonus was also quite a bit cheaper. It did mean I didn’t arrive back on the mainland until quite late in the afternoon, but I wasn’t planning on hanging around in Almirante. It had a slightly unsavoury feel to it, even before a glue sniffer came and stood staring at me as I stopped for water at a Chinese supermarket. I got my water and got out of town.
I had hoped to ride a short distance into the countryside and find somewhere to wild camp, but I was hampered by the number of people who were around. Many of them were just walking along the road, unable to afford to travel in any other way. I knew that there was a certain degree of wealth in Panama, centred around the capital and the canal, but it clearly didn’t stretch to out here, and I was a bit shocked and angered by the level of poverty.
Even if there hadn’t been people wandering about everywhere, there were fences blocking me in on the road, and the terrain was rather hilly, and so I was forced to just keep on riding. I found it very stressful. It was too hot and too hilly, there were too many bad drivers passing too close, too many horns beeping at me for no discernible reason. I found myself hating it. I really was in a foul mood. Now that I’d quit on one of my challenges it seemed like the whole journey was in danger of unravelling, my motivation to continue was approaching zero.
I eventually found somewhere to sleep, although it involved hauling my gear up a steep slope piece by piece. I gave myself a bit of a pep talk that night, telling myself that I needed to come out with a better attitude in the morning. I decided to be positive, say hello to the people, and wouldn’t you just know it, they all said hello back. This put me in a much better mood and the next up-and-down section passed by easily, with me not stopping for the first forty kilometres of the day, except to chat with a cycle tourist coming the other way. This was Juan, an Argentinian on his way up to Alaska. It had taken him two and a half years to get here from his home country, an impressively slow ramble through South America. He warned me about the pass that I knew was ahead, the crossing of the mountain range that divides the Caribbean and Pacific sides of the country. “Seriously, it’s steep,” he insisted.
Juan was right, and of course I hit the start of the steep climb under the full glare of the midday sun. Almost immediately I succumbed to the same light-headed dizzy fatigue that had hit me so hard on the steep climbs before Almirante, and the cycling became almost impossible. I rode maybe 200 metres and then had to sit down and take a break in the shade. Then another half kilometre, before collapsing again. I was a wreck, a pitiful excuse of a round-the-world cyclist.
My progress felt so pathetic compared to the energy I was expending with each foray into the sun, and I elected to take a longer break in the shade of some trees and eat pineapple and melon until the sun got lower in the sky. This turned out to be one of my finer ideas, and when I did continue it was with the mountain I was ascending blocking out the sun, and I rode much stronger. I didn’t want to waste these conditions, and so I just kept on cycling until it was almost completely dark, struggling to find a place to pitch my tent as I neared the top of the climb. I got lucky, and found a patch of flat ground hidden from the road just beneath the summit. It had been a tough day, but I fell asleep easily, proud of my efforts.
I was high enough here that it was a cold night, and that was truly wonderful. And it was raining in the morning, even better. Any respite from the heat was to be appreciated. I started early and was soon riding the twenty kilometres of up-and-downs of the summit plateau. At the end of that came the true summit, and what a great view down it was, with a rainbow arching over the land below me. The only negative was that the clouds and rain ended here, the Pacific side of the mountains was cast in bright sunshine.
The long descent was fast and fun, but not entirely welcome, as the temperatures increased with every kilometre. I was soon back in the tropical heat and I was back in a wealthier world, with bigger, better houses and no people whatsoever wandering along the road, they were all driving along in air-conditioned 4x4s now. Before long I arrived at the Pan-American Highway, a very modern dual carriageway with a wide shoulder divided from the traffic by a rumble strip edge. We would be following it east through Panama, but first I turned west. David was less than twenty kilometres back in that direction, towards Costa Rica, and it should have been easy on such a good road. But I was a mess. I felt awful, completely out of it. The heat was really messing with me, and even on this flat paved road I was having to stop and rest every couple of kilometres, diving into bus shelters and lying down on the bench to recover. I didn’t know what was wrong with me, but I didn’t like it at all.
I made it somehow to a hostel in David, Panama’s second biggest city, which was a most welcome sight as it had a pool. I was also surprised to see that it had a resident coatimundi, one of those weird animals we’d seen at Tikal back in Guatemala. It was the pet of the hostel manager, and simply roamed around the grounds, even allowing people to feed and pet it.
After a couple of days Dea arrived and we had our emotional reunion, though I nearly missed it having slept through her knocking on the door. I was still feeling very weak and tired. It felt like my race across Costa Rica and Panama to get to Bocas fast had taken a lot out of me. Maybe I’d pushed a little too hard there. We decided to take a few days more to rest before continuing, and moved to another hotel in a quiet part of town to get some really good recovery in. After four nights I still wasn’t quite myself, but we had a boat booked that was going to sail us from the eastern part of Panama to Colombia, and it was time for us to get moving in that direction.
Twenty kilometres after starting out from David and I was collapsed in a bus shelter again. I just felt awful, in no fit state to be cycling in this heat and humidity. The sun was relentless, with no shade out on the open highway. We were both worried about whether I could even make it to the boat. At least we managed to laugh about an incident that had happened on the way out of town. I’d clipped a curb with my front pannier, lost my balance, and fallen off sideways, disappearing into some plants. It was a sign of my pathetic state, but to be fair it was also pretty funny.
The next morning we set our alarm and were on the road by six in order to ride when it was a little cooler. I felt a little better cycling at this hour and we made thirty kilometres without problems. Then as it got hotter and hillier we got off the road. We had hoped to find a restaurant, but there wasn’t much on this pretty remote stretch, and we ended up hiding in a bus shelter for a few hours. In the afternoon it became overcast and even rained, a tremendous blessing. It was in fact the start of the rainy season in Panama, something that would perhaps save us and give me a chance of riding all the way to the boat.
That evening we asked to camp with a local family at their home next to the highway. They were a woman and two men of unknown relationship, very friendly and they even gave us delicious mango and papaya fresh from their trees. We asked to camp on their porch, for it was sheltered and so we could leave the roof off our tent to keep cool without getting wet if it rained. At first it was a nice evening, engaging with some local people in a way we’d rarely had the chance to do in Central America. But what seemed like a good place for the night soon turned into a nightmare, for the people didn’t go to bed early as we’d hoped, and in fact stayed outside on the porch next to us. Worse was that rather than talk to each other they preferred to shout to one another extremely loudly. They had absolutely no concept of keeping the noise down to allow us to sleep, and by midnight I’d had enough, and told Dea I wanted to leave. To my surprise she went along with this crazy idea, and we packed everything up and got back on our bikes in the middle of the night. Within a kilometre we found somewhere that was good enough to wild camp and threw the tent back up to get a few hours of actual rest.
With maybe four hours of sleep in us we were on our way again, not wanting to waste the cooler morning air. We made good progress and then rested through the hottest part of the day again, this time at a strange gas station run by a Chinese man, that was more like a building site. Again it clouded over in the afternoon and we were able to cycle on to a gas station where we could camp.
For the next five days this became pretty much our standard routine. We cycled as much as we could in the cooler parts of the day, and took to getting off the road when things got too hot. The further east we went, the busier the road became, and while this did make the cycling much less pleasant, it did at least mean more frequent Terpel Travel Centres. These excessively air-conditioned service stations provided everything we needed, with toilets, showers, electrical sockets, WiFi, cheap food, and space to camp peacefully behind them. It would be no exaggeration to say that our most cherished memories of Panama involved Terpel Travel Centres.
The honest truth was that we hated our time cycling through Panama. The only road was the Pan-American and we were forced to stick with it through the whole country despite the utterly unappealing cycling. I was still really struggling with my health and, Terpel Travel Centres aside, there were no real redeeming features to our time here. It was so hot and humid and we wondered how anyone could possibly live here. Our journey had become a miserable slog, and we couldn’t wait to get to our boat and get out of this place, for it had even begun to make us question if we wanted to continue with our journey. There are so many wonderful places to cycle in this world, but when you’re stuck day-after-day in a horrible place to cycle it becomes increasingly difficult to remember why you’re doing it. Our days in Panama were certainly some of the worst of the whole trip, and the idea of just quitting and going home was growing stronger inside us.
Despite all this we did eventually struggle our way through to the Panama Canal, an incredible sight according to Dea. To me it looked rather like a big canal, but we camped by it at a police station and watched the big ships sailing past, and, as this was the point that we would be leaving the highway, it felt in a way like the moment we had beaten Panama. From there we headed north to the Caribbean coast. A final narrow road busy with uncaring drivers did nothing to salvage any positive memories of cycling in Panama, but it did at least lead us to Puerto Lindo, the location of our boat, our ticket out of here.
With no road connection through the Darien Gap we had booked our passage on one of the many sailing boats that make money ferrying backpackers between Central and South America. The trip would take us four or five days, the first three of which would be spent island hopping through Panama’s San Blas Islands, before a sea crossing to Cartagena in Colombia. It was a break from cycling that we had been fantasising about throughout our miserable Panama ride, and it felt great that we were finally here. Our boat was La Gitanita, and we arrived early in order to disassemble our bicycles and wrap them in plastic bags, before passing them up to our captain, Caeser, who tied them to the mast.
We had heard from Anni, who’d taken a boat the week before us, that she’d had a tough time sleeping due to the fact that other passengers on board were partying a lot, and this was a concern for us. So when our fellow shipmates rocked up, with bags full of booze, including two young English girls with several bottles of vodka and wine, we feared the worst. But they were all very friendly as we exchanged greetings, really nice people, and they took a great interest in our unusual method of travel. And in any case, Dea and I had been given a private cabin at the front of the boat, furthest from where any partying would be taking place.
Our payment and passports were taken and we were told it would be a few hours before we would sail, and after all the introductions were over and people were settling in Dea and I sat up on deck at the front of the boat. It was very peaceful sitting in the marina, the boat gently rocking in the calm water. We were both relieved that Central America was over, with the heat and humidity, the busy roads, lack of wild camping, lack of interaction with the people, it really had been some of the toughest cycling of the trip. But we could now congratulate one another on having made it through, and it was really quite exciting to be on this new adventure. “My aunt has a sailing boat in Denmark, we should really ask if they can take us out sailing when we get home,” Dea said, getting very into this new way of life, perhaps a little prematurely considering we still hadn’t left the marina.
We sailed through the night, discovering that the front of the boat wasn’t the best place to be lying, but drifting in and out of sleep thanks to the sea sickness tablets we’d taken, until we were awoken by the loud clanking of an anchor being unwound above our heads. I climbed up the ladder and poked my head out of our cabin and saw that we had arrived in the San Blas Islands.
For the next two and a half days this was our home. Little islands of sand and palm trees, a tranquil paradise compared with the Panama we’d known up to now, the contrast could not have been greater. We snorkelled with tropical fish that lived in the coral reefs off the islands, we played volleyball together on courts that had been set up on almost all of the islands. Our chef Emerson prepared the most delicious of meals, and the other crew member Eduardo kept us all entertained with his broad smile and cheerful ways. Altogether there were ten of us paying passengers, mostly young, mostly from Europe, and we all got along very well. It was exactly what we had hoped for, it was exactly what we needed.
After our time in the San Blas Islands was at an end we set sail for Colombia, a straight sea voyage of some thirty hours or so. The sails were up, but the engine was also running full speed, for we had a schedule to keep. It was a shame that we weren’t really sailing the proper way, but at least I could now say that I’d been on a sailing boat, that I didn’t only rely on cruise ships for my sea crossings. But La Gitanita turned out not to be quite as stable as the Dawn Princess or Celebrity Millennium, and the choppy waters had a few faces changing colour. Eduardo laughed and insisted that this was very definitely not a rough crossing, but that didn’t stop me feeling relieved I wasn’t sailing around the entire Caribbean, nor Dea from spending almost the entire sea crossing lying down below deck, any interest in going out on her aunt’s boat back in Denmark now long forgotten.
We reached Colombia in the middle of the night, around one in the morning. The clanking of the anchor above our heads once again woke me up, and I rose to look out at the new world into which we had sailed. We were in the middle of Cartagena, and beyond the masts of other sailing vessels, all around us were tall buildings, glowing yellow with the lights of the city, reminding me of Surfers Paradise in Australia. It was a different world, something completely different from anything we’d seen in Central America. It was a new continent, a new start, we were in South America now.