Jul 23, 2008

Welcome to Panama 10/07/08
We crossed the border - a decaying wooden bridge, over a huge river, only 1 lane and 20 trucks waiting om both sides. Crossing it was an adventure; just don't drop anything.
We passed through border control quickly and reached the lively (compared to the Costa-Rica sleepy towns) border town. We were surprised by the Chinese family owning it and a whole line of different types of soy sauce. It was strange to pay in $.
We cycled the rest of the day through flat banana plantations, enjoying the changes accompanying the border crossing.

Crossing the border, fighting the people/trucks...
Banana train.
More bananas.

We invited ourselves to camp with a family, in a small village. They offered the second of the house of the grand parents. it was under construction and made of wood, not concrete - perfect!
The single, interesting incident was a pair of Mormon missionaries, in their funny uniform (long pants, long sleeve shirt and tie – perfect for the Caribbean heat!), walking in the tiny village. Our host was smiling with us.

Different faces.

We left the flat lands and the bananas and cycled up & down a steep, windy, beautiful road. We enjoyed the lack of urbanity around; less cement! Everything was super green.

Boat to Colombia – Part II 11/07/08
We entered Almirante to buy groceries (in the typical Chinese owned supermarket) and checked out the international port. After the visit at the port in Puerto-Limon we started to become worried. At the port we found out there are only banana boats to Europe and North-America. Colombia has bananas of its own.
On our way to the internet, we met a German couple, sailors. They told us we’ll not find any private sail boat, which we can hitch, sailing to Colombia; it is not the season. They referred us to good friends of them, Silvia & Gido, owners of the Wunderbar near Colon, who arranges sailing trips from Panama to Cartagena, Colombia. We called her and she told us that the next departure is on 31/07, 20 days from now! It was terrible for us; we might skip cycling the Pan-Am (lots of traffic and very commercial – not fun), the only road crossing the country, leaving us not more than one week of cycling… We told Silvia, we’ll keep in touch.
We continued to Chiriqui Grande, one of our best rides: jungle and mountains to the right, the Caribbean to our left, barely any houses, no traffic (all the banana trucks stopped at Almirante port) and the sky was cloudy (without unbearable heat) – perfect!

A house, hidden in the green.
The local architecture.

On the way to Chiriqui Grande.

Camping, raining.

Gal's dream house.
Passing a huge pineapple field, we got a gift!

Boat to Colombia - Part III 12/07/08
We reached the end of this road: left – 6km to Chiriqui Grande, a tiny town on the coast, right – 2km to a small village and after a 35km steep climb to the Continental Divide and a 62km descent to the Pacific Coast.
Gal’s knees were tiered after 100km of steep ups & downs. We recalled what Alon told us in Guatemala: “nothing is flat in Panama”.
We decided to go to the coast, even though it meant another half an hour of cycling for tomorrow, a tough day. It was 13:00.
At the entrance to town we saw some sort of a plant, with many containers – a sign of a port? We went to investigate.
The custom inspector in the gate told us there is a cargo ship coming in on Tuesday, leaving 2-3 days later to Colombia. After a few phone calls, he told us we need to be here on Tuesday noon time, talk directly with the captain. If he agrees, he’ll give us an official request to leave Panama from this port. There is immigration in town (it was a major fuel port, we understood, but didn’t care), but it was Saturday; it will open on Monday.
We were excited, very excited. Just yesterday we talked with the Wunderbar.
We took a hotel room and started thinking. We decided it is best to arrive with our bikes and gear when talking with the captain, make a better impression. Our only chance was to ignite his imagination, share him with our adventure. Cargo boats, nowadays, prefer avoiding the hassle of passengers.
We decided to leave our stuff in town, go for 2 days to the tourist-infested Bocas-Del-Toro and return for the boat.
Agreeing on a plan, we went to one of the Chinese, bought 1 liter of Chilean red wine (in a carton box, $2.75, a taste of South America) and went to the relaxed harbor, to enjoy the quiet afternoon. Since the construction of the road we’ve just cycled, 6 years ago, the local port and the commercial life around it died and tourists had no reason to arrive. This gave the small town a very relaxed ambiance. In the evening the whole town woke up to see the Almirante – Chiriqui-Grande volleyball match, in the park, just outside our hotel.

The quiet harbor.
Cheap Chilean wine!

Bocas Del Toro 13/07/08
We stored most of our stuff at the house of our friendly guest house owner and caught a bus back to Almirante. The 2 hour winding ride was beautiful, but tiered (we are out of practice with busses). Then we had a bumpy half hour on a speed-boat, to the island. Even Rami didn’t enjoy that boat ride.
After a 30 minutes search, Rami found a quiet corner for us to hide from the masses of tourists and the commercial scene around them. The room was extremely basic, but the balcony, on the water, was a winner. As usual, our neighbors were the Latin American artist/backpacker community. During the hotel search, we noticed that the famous backpacker haunts and many other places were not facing the beach. There was no access to the beach. What else was there to do there? Get drunk in the pub? You can do that anywhere…
We spent a day & a half of doing nothing in the balcony, except for 2 short excursions for supplies.

The bumpy boat ride.
Bocas Del Toro.
A baby shower in our hotel.
Our balcony.

Boat to Colombia - Part IV 15/07/08
We enjoyed the ride back to Chiriqui Grande. Both the boat and bus ride were smoother. We collected our stuff and went to the port. The customs inspector told us to meet him at 18:00. We wasted some time at the local internet cafe and arrived on time. Our customs inspector wasn’t there, but another one arrived, and soon arrived Arturo Romero, who was in charge of the boat or something. He was very kind and helpful, especially when the immigration officer wanted $40 just to enter the port, to talk with the captain. After a long while and some bureaucracy (no money, thanks to Arturo) we were allowed to enter the port. The talk with the Danish captain was quick: he couldn’t take us, due to insurance reasons.
This adventure was over…
Arturo gave us his address, on the way to Panama city, in case we’ll need a place to sleep.

The Continental Divide 16/07/08
We were back cycling, with a 2,000m climb ahead of us to the Continental Divide. There were no clouds and the heat was terrible. Gal was exhausted at around 14:00, at 500m. We passed near “Willie Miso – ecological rancho” Rami went to investigate and we decided to stop for the night in this charming ranch in a magnificent narrow valley with a small turquoise river winding through the lush jungle.
We walked around and enjoyed the river, till it started to rain. The rain became heavy and in less than an hour the calm river in which we bathed, became a brown monster sweeping everything in its way.
In the morning the river was turquoise again.
Dilber, the young worker, gave us smoked chicken for the road – tasty!

At Willie Miso.
Humming birds.

It was cloudy all day, so the climb was much easier. The scenery was beautiful and we were surrounded by millions of butterflies.

Amazing butterflies in Panama.
And bugs.

The Continental Divide.

In the afternoon the rain caught us and we stopped in a tiny restaurant with a friendly owner and a happy atmosphere.
The next morning we called Silvia and she told us there is a boat on the 23’rd and we need to arrive on the 22’nd, 4 nights away. We had a schedule!
We descended 2,000m of beautiful landscape and reached the Pan-Am. The 2 supermarkets we stopped in were Chinese owned.

Sleeping in the restaurant.

Chinese temple in the supermarket.

Nice improvisation...

Playa Coronado 18/07/08
We were told cycling the Pan-Am till Panama City, and then the road to Colon were far from fun. We decided to hitch to Playa Coronado, where Ian has invited us, relax there for a day or 2, then hitch north to Colon, bypassing Panama City, and cycle the Caribbean coast to Puerto Lindo.
Obviously, such a long term plan is optimistic for cycle touring (loading 2 bikes + trailers on a bus... with no damage?).
So, we were standing at the junction, and standing and standing for 3 hours…
A million trucks and 2 huge busses (to Panama City) didn’t stop for us, what made us hopeless, frustrated and desperate. Finally, at 16:15, a huge bus stopped. The bus driver assistant wanted $11 each, but Rami bargained him down to $15 for everything. We mention this for 2 reasons: first, 4 hours bus = $11? In Panama? Interesting. Second, were not big bargainers, but, bargaining on a bus ride? We’ll try that at home!
The first 2 hours were beautiful, green mountains, the road had wide shoulders (but badly paved) and not much traffic. From Santiago it became boring, industrial and with more traffic.
Then it was dark and we were still on the road…

We were dropped at the junction of Playa Coronado. The stress of quickly-quickly unloading our stuff, undamaged (?) and not forgetting a helmet on the way (a jump to Panama City, in search for a $100 helmet) is not fun. We went to the nearby huge supermarket and called Ian, who arrived 5 minutes later.
Arriving to an unfamiliar place in the dark is a headache. Last time it happened, we spent the night in the back of a lorry.
If not for Ian we would have been lost (or just wouldn’t get in to this situation). We loaded most of our luggage on his car and he led us, driving 15km/h, to his beach house, showed us to our ‘corner’ (a guest room) and made us feel at home.
We enjoyed the first evening, cooking (Ian is studying to be a chef), drinking wine and chatting.
In the following 2 days we did nothing but go to the beautiful beach, cook, eat and watch movies. We also updated our blog and rewashed our stinky laundry, which didn’t dry for 2 & a half rainy days.
We had a great BBQ evening with Henry, Nicolas and Adolfo.

Ian - thanks for a few days of vacation from our adventure and the tension of the coming boat trip.

In the kitchen.
The Pacific, once again.
Beautiful Playa Coronado.

Nice tan ;-)
BBQ night!

To the boat 21/07/08
We left Ian and waited for a bus to Panama City. After an hour Rami gave up and we loaded everything on the roof of a minibus. Gal didn’t approve and was hysteric.
2 hours later we were at the central bus station in Panama City, a modern building, and Rami, the animal, was shouted at, while washing his face in the cooler. We were not in the campo anymore.
Another 2 hours bus ride and we were near Colon, the Caribbean, again. Amazing how close the Pacific and the Atlantic are here (Gal recommends building a canal here).
There was no hotel around and notorious Colon was not in our direction and out of the question. We cycled a bit and Rami spotted our camp spot for the night: a small house with a big palapa, just on a beautiful beach with a perfect breeze.
During the night we saw all the boats queuing for the canal.
We had a lazy morning, jumping to the sea, before the morning coffee.

Our perfect camping spot (thank you Rami).

Our delicious vegetable soup...
Gal, fighting the mosquitoes.
Fisherman in the morning.

On the way to Puerto Lindo, we stopped at the charming tiny old port town of Portobelo, with its ruins. We met Cezar (Brazil) & Jorge (France), motorcycling Latin America, who escorted us a bit on the previous day and were waiting for another sail boat, leaving with us from the Wunderbar. They were kind and brought us 2 liter of cheap red Chilean wine in carton box (we had already 2 liters on us - thanks!).
Gal had a fall. Another scar, but the wine survived.

Cycling the Caribbean.
Who asked for a coconut and didn't get?

Portobelo fort.
Gal, fleeing from the rain.
Hiding from the rain, with our host.

We reached the Wunderbar, threw our stuff and went to the beach and the tiny village, Puerto Lindo, full of character and garbage. We tasted the typical Arroz con Coco (coconut rice) and bought fresh fish for dinner.
In the evening, we met our sailing group, Leo, the captain and Angela, his wife.
The following day, 16:00, we embarked the Odyssey and sailed towards Colombia.

Puerto Lindo.

To the boat.
Don't forget the beer!
All aboard!
The Odyssey.

Goodbye Panama 23/07/08
We didn’t mention the music. Since we left Nicaragua we didn’t have music around us. Panama, like Nicaragua and Mexico, is filled with happy music.
We didn’t have enough time in Panama (the winter in Patagonia); we wanted the ‘boat thing’ to be behind us. But, the parts we did cycle were the most beautiful in Central America (green jungle mountains, butterflies, beaches, people, etc.) and relaxed – perfect for cycling.
We missed Panama City, a cosmopolitan city, which deserves some time, we heard (as opposed to other Central America capitals).
We hope to come back again.