Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Panama: Monkeys, Sloths, and fritas bananas.

After a complete failure of a ski trip attempt to the Cordillera Blanca, I had no choice but to go on a solo bike trip, again. I know most people out their put this in the 'fringe' category, even if you do it with someone. Yet if you do it alone, its just dangerous, and the questions are always... 'why would you do that?' Well I have no answers, but I do have a good experience and hopefully an enjoyable story.

After deliberating on locations about where I could go for two weeks with my bike that's cheap, the weather is nice, and the flights aren't too bad I settled on Panama, with a touch of Costa Rica. As always, with little planning, a map, a bike and a digital lonely planet I headed out.

When I reached Panama City Panama on the first night I saw almost nothing of the city because it was late, and I wasn't supposed to go out at night in that city. The next morning I woke up in my dorm style room full of older than teenage types who had been staying a bit to long on the Hostel train. I quietly took my large bags to the balcony, shut the door, and started assembling the Surly. 2 hours or so later, I was ready to depart the smelly, hot hostel. With the excitement of a new adventure I set off intending to find some breakfast. After some confusion I found a nice cafeteria style dive with empanada's, french fries, and an assortment of other fried meats. This would actually be the best breakfast for a long time. After my $1.50 I was off to find my way OUT of the city. I did spend some time riding around the Casco Vieja, to have a look at the ancient Spanish ruins. Not my first choice in 'beautiful old places.' but interesting non the less. The trick was no stopping too close to any of the sketchy looking street crowd that couldn't help but get their hand in your stuff. After getting lost numerous times, I finally just ended up using my compass to get out of town. As reported by the Lonely Planet, after leaving the historic district I moved into suburbia, filled with middle classers, SUV's, and departments stores. Boring! But, safe. From here I headed North along the Canal (yes, THE canal) towards the Mira Flores Locks to watch some big metal and lots of wasted fresh water. After paying my $5 entrance fee It was nice to see them in operation, get wi-fi and use a clean bathroom.

Later on I experienced the real panama. Rain, it began about 1pm, and it continued on and off... for the next week. I was ready though with all my rain gear. After crossing the canal for some photo's I joined the Pan-American Highway heading West North West. I spent endless miles through hot weather, driving rain, and clouds before night started to fall. My first problem of the trip: Finding a place to stay at night. I had planned on staying in the town of La Chorrera, which seems to be a large enough town to have some accommodations. I was navigating reasonably well to this point, at least I thought so. I started riding at about 7:00am with stops for breakfast, water, and the canal. When it finally started getting dark at about 6:30 I was wondering if I would ever make it to La Chorrera. So I started to ask around for a Hotel, but no one seemed to know where one was. Finally I got sent to the Policia to chat with them. The Captain gracefully told me that their was not a hotel within 30km of our location, and that La Chorrera was 30 km back in the direction I had came. So much for my navigation skills. The Captain also told me that I would be spending the night with them at the police station. So I spent a nice night working hard on my Spanish, and being very, very safe.

The next day I got out reasonably early and headed for something more visually stimulating... like the beach. It was during my next ride that I saw the sloth. Funniest creature I've ever seen in the wild. About the size of my cat with the same white hair, but soaking wet. (what a surprise) and it moved across the ground so very slow. It made me smile just to watch it. After a much shorter day I found a surf school with beach front camping somewhere near playa corona. I had a nice night swinging in my hammock listening to the waves crash.

The following day was a rather painful 80km filled with rain, and more rain. The Pan-Am highway is excellent riding, most of the time. It has a large shoulder, slow speed limits, and is reasonably well maintained. The downside is that when they put in a bridge, the shoulder completely disappears. So you have to go out into the lane and cross the bridge. So every time you come to a bridge (which is often in Central America) you have to stop, wait for a break in the traffic, and then sprint across. (sprint is a little inappropriate for a 80 lb. bike). Finally as night was approaching I reached the town of Aguadulce, which just happened to be having a festival! Unfortunately it was raining in sheets again, so I didn't spend much time outside. However, it was fun to watch from my balcony.

The next day I decide to skip the inland cycling and catch a bus to David, a centrally located town in the Chiriqui Lowlands, probably a good hard 2-3 days ride. When I got into town I went straight for the Purple House Hostel. Probably my favorite place that I stayed on the whole trip. It is actually all Purple, inside and out.
The staff was excellent, the visitors resources where unbelievable, and it had an excellent kitchen. The next day I decided to head for the north Coast, over the continental divide. How hard could it be? So I headed back East to Chiriqui for the harded 60km ride of the trip. It was also the best 60km of the trip. The Chiriqui province is very different than Santiago, or Panama City, or even Colon. It is a beautiful, lush, fertile, rainforest with big mountains, waterfalls, and limestone--oh and monkeys. As I started out of town I quickly hit the mountains and started the slow, grind to the top, which was somewhere in the range of 4-5000ft, from sea level. A brutal climb for any bike. This was the first time I left the Pan-American Highway, and it was wonderful. The road was well cared for because it was the tourist route to Bocas del Toro.

I stopped at one roadside store to get a drink to go with my one water bottle. I chose the only thing I could see from the window, since I was never sure what I would get. Turns out it was 'malt flavored soda.' Wow, that is probably the worst combination ever thought up. 1.5 L of that and 24 oz of water was all I would have for the next 18 hours. I got lost in one town that had a bunch of unmarked roads where I asked for directions. The old man pointed right and then up to the sky, multiple time. He followed his gesture by looking at my bike and laughing hysterically. Not really a good sign, but I was psyched still so I didn't really notice. 6 hours of climbing later and 5 hours of rain, I wasn't so psyched. Standing under a tin shelter that kept most of the poring rain out I thought, this must be about the top. I was sure this was the last hill. Well when I stopped for dinner at about 6:00pm and the darkness was coming, I still wasn't at the top yet: not after 40 miles. The good news was that I was close, just one big hill away. I stopped at a tiny shed that had been turned into 'cafe hamburger' where I met two of my favorite locales: Andre and Blanca. They only made one item at their shop, hamburgers
Sauteed pre made, frozen patties with way too much Catchup, an old tomato. It was perfect. After much difficulty in communication for an hour, they offered to let me camp in the back in the grass... After evaluating the grass it became clear that it was more like a rice paddy with 4 inches of standing water. Not too good for my bivy sack. They just kept getting more generous and I ended up sleeping in the tiny floor of the 'cafe hamburger.' The next morning Andre showed up to cook me breakfast, another hamburger. But I was very thankful for their never ending hospitality.

One of the things that I appreciate more than the sights, the places, and the wonders, is the people. Recently in Panama and Peru we have experience the most wonderful, generous, and caring people we've ever met. It always the people that have little to nothing that always give the most. The Policia, Andre and Blanca, The random Peruvian who would point us in the right direction. It didn't matter that I (we) had poor spanish, or where foreign. They always go out of their way to help us out. I'm sure its a bit of a stereo type, but it seems that those with the least seem to be the most generous; while those with the most, are the least generous. However in Peru we did get a generous ride from a wealthy accountant...

I digress, After leaving 'Cafe Hamburger' I continued on through the mountains past their massive hydroelectric plant, and many, many waterfalls. The climbing was not yet done, not for another 10 miles or so. Once we started down however, it was steep and far. As I descended the temperature kept climbing. Funny, the only time I actually needed my super light 40+ degree down bag was at the Cafe Hamburger, every other night it was just for padding.
Descending onto the North side (or West side, figure that out) the forests and climate changed a bit. It seemed that the forest became more National Geographic like, or I was just more intimately involved in it. Multiple time I wished that I had purchased a machete to strap to the bike so I could go into the jungle for a night of camping, but I didn't and there was no way to get into the jungle without a machete, or a bull dozer. I passed the 'lost and found' reserve somewhere in the night and would probably have stayed there in retrospect for a day to experience the time. The rain was also much thinner on the North and I finally dried out a few items. unfortunately, my down coat that was in the center of my panniers, which had rain covers on them, had gotten soaked. Thankfully at 38 C things dry pretty quick.

For those of you who like to tour, one trick I've picked up from somewhere (probably reading) was to use the tops of your panniers as drying racks. It works excellent, especially on a 60 kph+ decent and a hot day. The trick in Panama is getting things out when its not raining, and then getting them back IN before it starts again. Thankfully, it didn't rain until the evening, so everything got dried.

I was now riding the North Coast road towards Bocas del Toro, and although it wasn't that difficult I kept feeling like I was out of gas and ready to call it a day. Most people would have figured it out quickly, but I'm slow so it took most of the day to realize it was the heat. It was hot all the time, and so I didn't really notice the difference, but my internal engine did. I ended up stopping at every town to poor water over myself to keep the motor cool. Finally I made it to the town of Quebrada Pastores and I was very tired. It was also pouring rain again, so I stopped for dinner at a nice, but expensive(like $5 instead of $2). I stayed the night at the hotel that was connected, and also not so nice. I anticipated another 10 miles or so to Almirante, the ferry town, but in the morning when I got up it turned out to be a mile or two... I guess Maps can't always right. Actually, every map I've used in foreign countries has been wrong at least once. The next day I took the ferry to Bocas del Toro, the famed Islands of Panama.

After arriving in town it rapidly became apparent I'd reached a tourist destination. White people where everywhere, no one stared at me, just my bike, and everyone said hello in English. Its funny how the simple cultural things make you comfortable. I found a nice, tiny, room to stay in a quit part of town (not so easy to find in Bocas). I spent a lot of time with some interesting Americans. Senor Sombrero as he called himself, and Tom Duffy, a Solar engineer, and world traveler. Senor Sombrero was just a nice guy who lived the simple life, spent 2 years riding a Walmart bike around florida, and didn't really have any goals in life. Tom Duffy, on the other had, started a solar business, has Engineered some of the largest solar systems in the world, traveled the world, built an amazing off the grid house, and then left it behind to stay in Bocas. I also took a ride along the East shoreline to get free from the town and got to experience the real island. It is very, very beautiful, and everything is for sale! It would be nicer if it was all protected from more development. I heard a lot of Howler monkeys, but I couldn't actually see any of them. I did see lots of fast and fun lizards though... big enough to be a dinner stake.
The next day I took the early boat out of Bocas. Most people would stay for weeks or at least days on an exotic tropical island like Bocas, but it just isn't for me. I tried to hang out at the beach for a while like normal people but I only made it like 30 minutes before I was back on the bike exploring. I guess I'm not into the sedentary life. When I reached Almirante I took a taxi to Changuinola to catch the bus to San Jose, Costa Rica. I made it with minutes to spare. That was the end of my cycling for the trip, sadly. As I sad uncomfortably on the bus for the 6 hours I looked out the window at the amazing rain forests of Costa Rica, and the monsterous mountains we climbed over to get to San Jose. It is definitely an amazing country, and I will likely return for another tour. After much suffering I found a nice little hostel near the airport where I spent the night and had my best meal (and most expensive $7) of the trip. The next morning I flew out to Atlanta.

As always there are good and bad parts of any adventure. This one was unique in the fact that its the first time I've spent time on my bike near the equator with lots and lots of rain. It proved to be beautiful, and not as difficult as I had imagined. The people where the highlight, and I think will always be the highlight. Like Peru, it was wonderful to experience there way of life, and see their smiles as they help you in a time of need. I'm not sure if I would return to Panama, at least not soon. If I did, the place I would go is the Mono
( Otherwise I would be returning to Costa Rica to head North. Step two in a very long Journey.