Feb 26

The End.

P1040953After getting stuck in Cali for nearly two weeks, I woke up one morning and knew that it was time to get back on the road.  Tony and I had a job to finish; The last 400 km to Medellin.  So I got out of bed, got a cup of coffee, took a shower, and ever so slowly got Tony ready to go for his final week on the road.

Our final week on the road was a focused mission to just get there.  Almost all our meals were eaten in roadside comedores as we were in no mood for more granola or porridge made with dried milk, pasta and sauce, or even, for that matter, setting up the camp stove.  Neither could we be asked to camp or be sociable with hosts, so we stayed in either hostels or random roadside hospedajes all six nights.  In short, anything we could do to make our journey to Medellin a bit more comfortable, a bit less strenuous, we did.  We are done, we told ourselves, and it’s not as if we are going to blow our trip budget at this point.  

Busy mind

Santa barbara

Santa barbara

As I cruised along the shoulder of the Colombian highway for the first time in many, many months, my mind was full of thoughts again and busy churning away.  Whilst I pedaled along I reflected on the journey behind me and contemplated the life awaiting me post-trip in Australia.  It had been a year and a half since I had left Australia – which is a lot of journey to mull over – and post-trip for the first time in my life I would be going “backwards” – which is to say instead of settling in a new country or new city I would be going straight back to Melbourne and back to a lifestyle very similar to the one I had left behind.  Same job, same friends, same hobbies, but what will have changed?  How much have I personally changed in the last 13,000km? How will that personal change and growth translate when put back into trenches of “normal life”?  How will I cope with the post-trip its-like-it-never-happened phenomenon?

One of my free breakfasts.

One of my free breakfasts.

Despite the fact the my mind was focusing on the past and the future, Colombia wasn’t about to let me forget the present.  That week I was constantly joined by guys on motorcycles or bicycles who wanted to know about my trip, asking me if I needed anything, if they could help in any way.  More days than not, I’d hit the road only to have to stop an hour or so later to accept a free breakfast or free lunch in somebody’s restaurant or house.    Time and time again my withdrawn introspection would be challenged and eventually domineered by the extremely effusive and casual charm that Colombia is famous for.  Back in September I wrote that Mexico has the most wonderful people of all the countries I have ever visited; word of that claim must have gotten out because it seemed like Colombia was making a determined effort to earn the title for themselves.

Do you like Colombia?

P1040939120 km south of Medellin I stayed the night in a little highway town called Las Felisas.  It was after dark and I had already eaten dinner and wandered the length of the little town but there was still some time to kill before going to sleep.  So I strolled back to the little roadside restaurant where I had eaten and sat myself down next the the chain smoking lady who ran the place to have a chat.  We talked about the town, the 24 hour traffic, the water situation, how often I call my mother etc…  eventually though, we started chatting about Colombia.

“Do you like Colombia?” She asked me.

“Yes” I replied, “I love Colombia. In fact of the eleven countries I’ve visited, Mexico and Colombia are the stand-out favourites.  It’s because of the people.”

“Colombians are nice people?”

“Yes, definitely, but the people have been incredibly nice to me the whole trip, in almost every single country, so it’s something else….”  I paused to think.  What was the difference?  I looked back up at the lady and realized that the answer was right there in front of me.

“It’s this”  I said finally, indicating the table that she and I sat at.  “We are sitting here chatting almost like neighbors.  That’s what I love about Colombia.  Here – and in Mexico – I have been treated like a person first and a foreigner second.  In most other countries it’s been the reverse.  They’ve been incredibly generous and kind, but they haven’t… accepted me in the same way that the people here do.  I feel like if I lived here I would be “normal” after a short while.  I’d have colombian friends, a colombian girlfriend, and be able to get a normal job.  I could live in real Colombia and not some strange ex-pat side world.  That’s what I love about this place.”

“Interesting…” She lit another cigarette.  “I’m happy to hear that.  I need a coffee, you want a coffee?”

One last hill.

There is one thought though, one mental image, that has been popping into my head more now than ever.  It’s an image of me – on a bicycle – riding up a long, unrelenting hill in a hot sun with a big grin on my face.  I’m grinning in this fantasy because I’m in Colombia with Medellin is just a couple of days ride away.  It’s an image of me on my victory lap.”

I wrote that back in November whilst riding through El Salvador, and the day before arriving in Medellin, that mental image became a reality.  It was the final serious hill to climb and it was a biggie; in less than 35 km we would gain 1500m of elevation.  We started our ascent into the Andes in the heat of the day and for the next 5 hours would steadily climb higher and higher.  It’s the last hill, I kept telling myself, the very last one.  I was excited to be so close to Medellin, less than 60 km away, but I had to reign in this excitement and maintain the tortoise pace of 6 kph that would get me to the top.  As the sun dropped low on the horizon, we had made it far further than I had thought we would, but there was no way we were going to make it to Medellin that night, so we pulled up and stayed in a small town just 5 km from the top of the mountains and only 30 km from Medellin.  Our last day on the road would be a short one.

Traffic entering Medellin.

Traffic entering Medellin.

Arriving in Medellin.

The next day was a day on the road just like any other, except that this day, the 454th day since starting our little adventure, was the last.  I woke early, and for the last time pulled on the clothes that I’d been sweating in for five days, strapped on the shoes that if whiffed directly could kill a horse, loaded Tony up and set off.  I was eager to complete the final 30 km, finish up the adventure, and starting looking ahead to the next chapter of my life.

I took my time, partly because there was no rush, but mainly because my mind was filled with paranoid images of flying off the edge of a cliff or being smashed head-on by a bus.  This close to the end I did not want to end up in a bloody puddle on the side of the road, so I took the winding descent down to Medellin like a granny.  Eventually, we rolled into Medellin – sano y salvo – and directed ourselves to the house of an old friend of mine, the official finish line of the Tour de Zack y Tony.

When we arrived at the end of our 13,300+ km, 15 month, 10 country, 4 time zone, San Francisco to South America trip, there was no cheering crowd, no tape to break through, no fanfare, and no television crews.  Instead, I arrived alone to a quiet residential street and rolled up to the kerb in front of Juan Camilo’s building.  I sat there for a moment – foot on the kerb – and looked around the green and sunny street for any passerby who might bear witness to this great moment of my life.  My searching was met by silence, and so for the very last time, I dismounted.

And that was that.

 

—–

The Tour de Zack y Tony has officially ended, we made it!  That said, keep an eye on this blog a bit longer as there will be at least a few more posts to come relating the aftermath of our adventure of a lifetime.

For more photos of this stage go here

For the Stage 7 summary page, go here (coming soonish)

 

Feb 23

Cali Salsa Nights

Salsa in Cali.  Photo: Esme McAvoy

Salsa in Cali. Photo: Esme McAvoy

I lifted both of Eliana’s hands up above her head and, holding them there, led her in a slow spin to her left and watched in complete awe as she effortlessly grooved to the caribbean beat, leading with every dangerous curve of her body; thighs, hips, bum, waist, and boobs all appeared to be moving of their own volition and yet blended together in an alluring orchestration that quite simply left me powerless to do anything but worship the goddess dancing in front of me.  As she came around full circle, I suddenly remember that I was meant to be dancing as well and tried to put my lanky frame back into the beat in order to match her movements for a few moments before sending her back turning the other way.  As she came back around again I pulled her in close by lifting her hands up and over my head and draping them around my neck while in the same movement dropping my hands down to her waist.  We moved in close, our bodies pressed tightly together while she continued to move her body in ways unimaginable.  I could taste the sweat on her neck and feel her fingers dig into my hair, as we rocked together down low to the floor before coming back up again for air.

The song ended, and the flushed Colombiana before me indicated that she needed to cool down.  I nodded in agreement, as I too desperately needed to cool down – in more ways than one – and so we headed for the door of the bar and outside into the cool air.

It was a Saturday night in Cali, the salsa capital of Colombia, of South America and arguably of the world.  We hadn’t been dancing much salsa tonight, but it was salsa I had to thank for meeting this lithe beauty as I had met Eliana two nights earlier at a Salsa bar.  She had been standout gorgeous in a bar filled with beautiful women, and I had somehow worked up the courage to ask her to dance.  We had got to talking afterwards, and decided to meet up the next night, and the night after that…

Now as we stood outside together and I listened to her chat animatedly about her family, I appreciated why it had taken me so long to get to Colombia.  It had taken me this long because I hadn’t just wanted to make it to Colombia,  I had wanted to make it to this Colombia: sharing a night in the company of a beautiful Colombian girl, talking about our life views in her native tongue, and holding my own whilst dancing the night away at a local bar.   To be standing here enjoying one of the best nights of my life, just for starters, I had had to cycle 13,000 kilometers, learn to speak Spanish, and learn to dance salsa.   Without any of those three, I would have never had this night.  Without the 14 months leading up to this moment, I’d more likely be getting drunk in some backpacker bar on the Caribbean coast, talking to a German girl in English and listening to her compare the Inca Trail with the Lost City Trek.  Nothing against the Germans, but I preferred to be right where I was, mesmerized by the smiling eyes and radiant beauty of a girl from Narino.

In that moment, for the first time in my life, I appreciated that not only is the journey more important than the destination, but that it is the journey that defines the destination.

My journey was over.  I had arrived.

 

 

 

Feb 15

Rebirth of the Pacific

The Renacer Del Pacifico still sitting on the ground in Bahia Solano, waiting patiently for the tide to rise.

The Renacer Del Pacifico still sitting on the ground in Bahia Solano, waiting patiently for the tide to rise.

After nearly a week at Playa Almejal, Tony and I rode back to the docks at Bahia Solano to board yet another cargo boat that would take us the rest of the way to Buenaventura, Colombia.  I had called Oscar, the owner and boat captain of the Renacer del Pacifico  (Rebirth of the Pacific) earlier in the week, and he had assured me that the boat would be ready for boarding 1 PM Friday.

The Renacer del Pacifico was a much larger steel version of La Victoria with access to the roof.  The $77 ticket, included 3 meals a day, and a bunk for the 30 hour journey down to Buenaventura.  The food was simple: rice with fish or rice with chicken with agua de panela for a drink, and the cots were stacked three high and squeezed in right next to each other so one had to crawl in via the end, but all in all after La Victoria, none of us were complaining.

Loading fish on, two by two

Loading fish on, two by two

It was a slow boat, and we made about 6 knots on the perfectly flat pacific water.  The calm that evening was eery as we slowly putted our way along the desolate, forgotten coast.  During our entire journey we would see only one other boat sharing the waters with us.

When we did finally arrive at the inlet that leads up to Buenaventura, suddenly we were on a shipping lane, and as we made our 6 knots we were continually passed by a stream of large container ships and tankers.  We were arriving after sunset, and to our surprise we watched as not one, not two, but nine fancy looking passenger ships slipped by us one after the other, heading out to the open ocean.  The passenger boats were are lit up bright as day and some of them looked like luxury yachts, but behind them in their wake – blacked out and almost invisible – followed a small navy patrol boat.  Most of the passengers on our boat seemed to think they were drug mules, but a little more digging revealed that they were passenger ships heading south, to the villages south of Buenaventura and onwards to Ecuador.  There had been a few instances of attacks on this route, so now the passenger boats traveled in convoy, escorted by the Colombian military.

P1040780Buenaventura is a big, long, and very important port.  In fact, it is Colombia’s only port on the whole of it’s pacific coast and pretty much the only settlement on the coast that you can drive to.  24 hours a day, 7 days a week, thousands of trucks (called tractamulas here) continue the endless task of transporting containers to and from Buenaventura along the sinuous, mountainous road up to Buga and then on to other parts of the country.  So as we drifted into the port and past the docks and cranes, we felt dwarfed by the large ships towering over us despite the fact that the Renacer is no tiny vessel.  It took us hours (at 6 knots per hour) to pass all the high real-estate docks and silent giants before we finally arrived at the very end of the inlet at a dock in disrepair.  Captain Oscar finally cut the engine.  We’d arrived.

bunks on board

bunks on board

We’d arrived, but we couldn’t leave yet.  It was 11 pm and low tide, so the dock level was about six meters higher than the deck level of the boat.  It was almost comical, with everyone out on the deck, ready to arrive, eager to get off the boat, and then not being able to.  Although some passengers piled into the lancha and gondolad over to a bank they could climb up, most of the passengers opted to sleep on the boat that night and wait for high tide at 4:30 am the next morning.

Early the next morning, we woke up to the noise of the boat crane lifting the captain’s jeep off the boat and setting it back down on dry land.  We were still about 2m lower than the dock level so Ally and Glenn had to take all the bags off our bikes and chuck them up to me one bag at a time, before passing the bikes over.  We were finally on dry land in Colombia with a road the led onwards to the rest of the country and South America.  It had taken us a week and half but we had finally made it to Buenaventura.  From here I would visit an old friend before riding up to Cali and then turn left to Medellin while Ally and Glenn would ride up to Cali and turn right to Ecuador and Argentina.

P1040831It was still dark though, so we did what most touring cyclists would do at 5am in the morning on a backwater dock in the most dangerous city in Colombia: we got out a camp stove and made some coffee.  The sun would rise on it’s own time.

As we sipped our coffee and patiently waited for daylight to arrive, I found myself looking at the various signs painted on the Renacer.  ”Vamos pa’ Solano”  (We’re off to Solano) and “Servimos no competimos” (we don’t compete, we serve) had been cute little catch phrases when we were boarding the boat in Solano, but now that the Renacer was no more than little flea on the backend of a huge container port I realised just how important this boat is to the community of Bahia Solano and El Valle and indeed the whole of the Pacific Coast.  Being only one of two cargo boats that make the run, she is the veritable workhorse of the Pacific.

Buenaventura

Buenaventura is not considered a safe place by even Colombia standards, but let’s not forget that people choose to live there, so it can’t be all bad.  I was visiting an old friend of mine who is from there, so I wasn’t exactly wandering around the streets looking for drug lords and stray bullets.  No, instead I spent most of my time hanging out with my friend’s 9 year-old and 2 year-old daughters.  True, a small bomb went off in the centre of the city during my stay there, but all-in all Buenaventura was a place much like any other.  It’s poor, and it’s ugly, but it’s still “black colombia” and along with that comes a tangible passion for life in the air.  After nearly a week there though, I decided I had imposed on Juan David’s incredibly hospitality long enough, so Tony and I took the only road out of town and began our long slow climb into the mountains.

Into the Andes that its.

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Feb 07

The Forgotten Coast

Playa Almejal

Playa Almejal

This stretch of coast is alive.  At my feet dozens of tiny hermit crabs inch their way across the black sands leaving diminutive little trails in the soft wet sand behind them while in front of me a squadron of a dozen pelicans fly low over the crashing surf, looking more like boats magically hovering through the air.  Walk around a group of rocks and you will catch a glimpse of dozens of pink crabs, flashing out as pink streaks in all directions before disappearing into their holes, moving impossibly fast for an animal that runs sideways.  In the late afternoon the pelicans can be seen hanging out in the surf on the other end of the beach, looking for all the world like a group of surfers waiting for the perfect wave.  They aren’t there to surf though, and groups of four or five of them at a time will launch into the air, glide across the waves, and then in perfect coordination dive bomb one right after the other into the fish-filled waters.  The ocean here is practically boiling with fish, from yellow fin tuna to red snappers to millions of other varieties that I don’t know the names of.  It’s easily sport for the birds, and they share their hunting grounds with the fisherman from the nearby village, who at all hours of the day can be seen walking back from the hunt lugging their heavy catch.  Sometimes they are carrying dozens of foot-long snappers, other times just one single meter-long monster.

Sand Writing

Sand Writing

I’m sitting on the peaceful, wild pacific coast of Colombia at a little-visited place called Playa Almejal.  This strip of soft volcanic sands is surprisingly the only beach on Colombia’s 1000 km pacific coast that is easily accessible from the rest of Colombia.  There are no roads here though and so visitors must either come by boat from Panama like I have, take the long 30-hour weekly boat ride from Buenaventura to the south, or fly in on little 16 seater propeller planes from Medellin.  The flight only takes an hour, but the $200 return fare and the infamy of dangerous Choco province mean that this beach is perpetually empty with only a sprinkling of travelers trickling through each week.

I’ve been here for almost a week, here at Playa Almejal, the village El Valle as well as the bigger town of Bahia Solano.  I’m waiting for the next cargo boat to Buenaventura.  I like it here.  Here is the kind of place where you call the boat captain yourself to find out when he will get back, it’s the kind of place where you can’t go 2 hours without some local offering you a beer, the kind of place where all the Juans are differentiated by what they do (Juan del Agua sells purified water, Juan de Panes has a small bakery).  Petrol in Solano is bought from the green and brown house two houses down from the bridge crossing the river.  Ask for Elvis.  Lunch in El Valle is served in Rosalia’s living room.  Ask for the sopa de queso (cheese soup).

Petrol Station

Petrol Station

Despite knowing that we are just one-hour from Medellin by a regular flight, I simply can’t shake the feeling that we are in the middle of nowhere.  We are after all, on a beach surrounded on all sides by large expanses of dense, virgin jungle.  The source of this perceived seclusion for me comes for the long hard boat journey I had to take from Panama City to arrive here, but for other travelers – especially for Colombian visitors – it comes mainly from the perceived – and real – dangers of Choco.

Choco is Colombia’s Darien, a province of intense untouched jungle that borders Panama’s Darien province and stretches most of the way down Colombia’s undeveloped Pacific Coast.  It is the home of guerrilla fighters, paramilitary groups, the Colombia Military, and drug cartels.  Fisherman in villages along this coast have become rich overnight when one day they pull out of the water something other than fish.  Military in this area remains on edge remembering raids from 6 or 7 years ago that left 30 of them dead.  This week rumors float around about two Americans and two Chileans that may have been kidnapped, which later changes to 1 American and two Peruvians being killed, which later changes to 3 petroleum workers being kidnapped.  Quien sabe?

EL Valle

EL Valle

It is easy to forget about the dark past and the current hard reality of this province whilst chatting with the friendly easy-going locals, and walking barefoot along the dirt streets of a safe and quiet fishing village.  I’m told it’s a paradox that defines not just this region, but all of Colombia.  Small indicators remain though amongst the tranquility.  After all, the men with machine guns are there for a reason, as are the signs offering amnesty to guerrillas, and perhaps – just perhaps – the heavy drinking and customary beers for breakfast that many of the men here seem to enjoy are the result of something other than simple boredom.

 

 

 

—–

P1040758Travel information:

Getting there:

To get to Bahia Solano, there are flights offered from Medellin ranging from $120 to $300 for a return.  Otherwise, you can get here from Panama city by following the same 2 day journey I took… or by getting one of two weekly cargo boats from Buenaventura.  The trip lasts 30 hours and costs $77 with bunks and foods included

Accommodation:

In Solano, there are a variety of small hotels starting at about $12/night for one person or $16 for two people but going up to the high-end.

The only road.  It runs between Solano and El Valle, 18 km apart

The only road. It runs between Solano and El Valle, 18 km apart

In El Valle and Playa Almejal there is also a full range of accomodation.  On Playa Almejal I can recommend the one hostel in this area The Humpback Turtle run by “the gringo without a shirt” Tyler and his Colombian wife Carmen.  This young couple’s thatch and bamboo eco-hostel offers $6 camping, $8 hammocks and $10 dorm beds.  You can play with the most awesome dog in the world, “Brownie” for free.

Facilities:

Both Solano and El Valle have electricity and the tap water is considered safe to drink.  There is a bank and ATM in Solano, and another ATM by the airport in between Solano and El Valle.  Internet Cafe’s can be found in Solano and El Valle.  Mobile phone service is good here.

Activities:

Apart from enjoying the villages and the beach, there is good surfing here, incredible fishing and sport fishing, the national park Utria, Turtle hatching season, and humpback whale watching season.  For more detailed information call Tyler.

Best time to come:  Dry season or whale season.

 

 

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Feb 06

Quiet Villages, Loud Machine Guns

Dug out canoe with Outboard motor in Jaque

Dug out canoe with Outboard motor in Jaque

Jaque

After pulling away from the good ship Victoria our lancha whipped us towards land.  We bounced across the surf and over a sandbar before entering a small natural breakwater.  We had arrive in Jaque.

Now that we were here, the next stage of our journey to Buenaventura, Colombia would be to hire a lancha across the border to Jurado, and then onwards to Bahia Solano.   This would be the most expensive leg

Fish in Jaque

Fish in Jaque

of the trip because of the small number of people making the trip and the high cost of fuel.  It is also expensive because the locals have you by the balls and you have little negotiating power.  Fortunately, there are two “captains” in Jaque who are permitted to take people across the border and so the initial price of $200 for a person and a bike was quickly bargained down to $107.  Not counting the few locals just going to Jurado, there were 11 of us going to Solano.  (Apart from Ally, Glenn, Neils and I, we were joined by 3 Mexican hippies and four Colombians)  Collectively the 11 of us decided to stay the night in Jaque as after our long, uncomfortable trip on Victoria C nobody was in the mood to hop straight back into a boat.

Poster telling people to stop trafficking drugs in Jaque

Poster telling people to stop trafficking drugs in Jaque

Jaque was exactly as advertised: a remote fishing village in the heart of the Darien.  It has a beautiful black sand beaches, dozens of dugout canoes, fisherman, and fish.  The general atmosphere to the village is laid-back and peaceful and it only takes about 10 minutes to check out the entire village.  It is in the heart of the Darien though, so there was also a large military post and posters urging people to give up drug trafficking and/or to denounce fighting for the guerrillas.  There were even a couple wild-west style WANTED posters for a couple bad guys with rewards offered for information that would lead to their arrest.  Interestingly, despite still being in Panama, the reward amounts were given in Colombia pesos and ranged from $75,000 to $1,000,000 ($40 to $550 USD).

In the lancha to Jurado

In the lancha to Jurado

Crossing into South America

The next morning we got up in the dark and walked back down to the beach to get our passports returned to us and our bags sniffed and searched before beginning the process of squeezing 3 bicycles, all our luggage, and 16 people into a small boat.

Our Captain for the day was named Walter, a local from Jaque in his early 40s who had a bit of a cool surfer look dressed in board-shorts and a hoodie.  I liked this man instantly and trusted him despite the fact that he had initially tried to rip us off for our passage.  You could tell that he took his job and his responsibility seriously.  His young beautiful mulata wife was his first mate and they’d take turns driving us to Bahia Solano.

We finally shoved off at about 8am.  One of the local boys started signing and he was soon accompanied by some boat-hull percussion as well as the sound of beers being cracked open.  We were off.

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Landing at Jurado, Colombia

About an hour later – after a few mid-ocean pee breaks for the beer drinkers – Walter caught my eye and pointed to a nondescript part of the coast that jutted out slightly.  “Alli, LA FRONTERA” he yelled over the sound of the engines.  It was the border of Panama and Colombia – completely un-noteworthy in real life but a place where mankind had drawn a clear, thick black line on a map separating the two countries from one another.  As we passed the point, we crossed into Colombia, and I smiled with myself to think that Tony and I had officially made it to South America and to the 9th country of our trip.  For me personally there was another reason to celebrate as it was my first time in South America – meaning that I had now “set foot” in six continents and only Antarctica remained.  I turned around in my seat and shouted at the colombian girls “Welcome back to the motherland!” to which one of them joked “It’s amazing! Suddenly the coast looks so much more beautiful now that we are in Colombia, no?!”

Jurado

Jurado

A Bad day for Captain Walter

Soon after crossing the border we arrived in Jurado, a small village that is essentially an island with the coast on one side and a river that splits around it.  We crashed through the surf, wound our way through the river, and arrived at the town’s dock which sits under the shadow of a large hill.  At the top of the hill is a military fortification with sandbags and mounted machine guns.  We all hopped out – the men among us peeing in a discreet corner – and trickled through the town to an unsigned building that was immigration.  The casually dressed immigration lady waved the first of us (me and the three colombian girls) into her office and began the process of stamping us into the country when Walter timidly stepped into the room and asked very, very politely if he could ask a quick question.  When the lady nodded he asked “What would happen if someone had lost their passport?”

Children playing at the quiet dock in Jurado  photo credit: Ali Burke

Children playing at the quiet dock in Jurado photo credit: Ali Burke

Shit, I thought as I listened to the rest of the conversation, Neils still hasn’t found his passport.

I couldn’t believe it.  Somehow, in-between Jacque and Jurado, Neils had lost his passport.  I had been sitting next to him on the boat when he first noticed he couldn’t find it, but I had assumed that once we got off the boat he would be able to have good look through his bag and it would turn up.  If he was now telling officials that it was lost, it must really be lost.

Neils was in a very awkward position.  Normally losing a passport whilst traveling is more an inconvenience than anything else; you simply go to the nearest consular service of your country, report it missing, and they give you a new one.  Neils though, was in an immigration limbo at one of the most isolated border crossings in the world, there wasn’t exactly “consular services” nearby.  He had already been checked out of Panama, and was physically in Colombia, but he had not yet been checked into Colombia.  He was neither here nor there. Without a valid passport he could not be allowed into Colombia, but by the same logic he could not return to Panama either. However, because the border official in Jaque had already seen Neils with his travel document and the Colombian official hadn’t, it seemed likely that Neils would have to go back to Jaque, and then Panama City, in order to get himself a new passport.

This put Walter into an awkward position of his own because as our captain he was responsible for us and had a duty to get us checked into Colombia and take us onto Bahia Solano about 3 hours away.  There was a weekly cargo boat that would be leaving Solano that day around 1 or 2 pm for Buenaventura and three of his passengers wanted to be on it.  So, he had to get us moving, but at the same time he was the only one allowed to take Neils back to Jaque so he had to either make his 10 other passengers wait for 3-4 hours and miss their boat while he shuttled Neils back to Panama, or he had to get the Colombian officials to let Neils stay in Jurado for a couple of days while he took the rest of us onwards.

While all this discussion was going on, I asked Neils if I could look through his bag myself, and when he agreed, I turned it inside-out on the floor of the immigration building.  Pocket by pocket, item by item, I carefully went through everything; still no passport.  One of the Colombian girls asked me if Neils had searched the boat yet.  I replied that I assumed that he had, but there would be nothing to lose by going to have another look, so she, Glenn and I walked back to the boat to have a gander.

When we got to the landing, I waded out to the boat and went straight to where Neils and I had been sitting and sure enough – right where Neils’ feet had been – there was a small, black, waterproof money belt with a Canadian passport inside.  I didn’t even have to climb into the boat to get it.

Walter’s day gets even worse

Landing at Jurado, note the Military fortification at the top of the hill.

Landing at Jurado, note the Military fortification at the top of the hill.

Ten minutes later we were all loaded up back into the boat and ready to roll as Walter was keen to get going as quickly as possible so that we wouldn’t miss the boat in Bahia Solano.  He shoved us off and went back to start the two outboard engines.  The first started with a single pull, but the other one wouldn’t start.  After playing with it for 15 minutes while we drifted in the middle of the river, he finally pulled us back to shore and got out his tools and with the help of a local went to work on it.  He seemed stressed out – despite the fact that all of his passengers were calmly and patiently waiting for him to do what he had to do.

*THACK! THACK! THACK! THACK! THACK!*

The quiet morning was suddenly interrupted by the loud report of a mounted machine gun.

*THACK! THACK! THACK! THACK! THACK!*

A second volley followed on the echoes of the first.

P1040742Honestly, I thought nothing of it.  The military were up there at the top of their hill, doing their thing with their guns and it had nothing to do with us.  Still though, I had never heard a large mounted machine gun fired before and it was far more loud than I would have ever expected it to be.   Even at about 300 m distance I could almost feel the reverberation of the discharge in my bones.  It was a startling enough sound to make the Colombian city girls duck for cover despite the fact that their cover was the petrol tank.

Then things got decidedly uncomfortable.

*THACK! THACK! THACK! THACK! THACK!*

As the third volley ripped out, suddenly everyone starting swearing and yelling in colorful cocktail of Mexican, Panamanian, Juradan, and Colombian slang.  “The fuckers are hitting the water right next to us!”  Walter’s wife shouted, pointing at the ripples no more than 5 m behind us.  Walter started yelling angrily, the guy from Jurado that had been helping with the engine was yelling angrily, the Colombian guy on our boat who was probably on his 6th or 7th beer of the day stood up next to me and started swearing at them, holding out his arms wide as if to say “bring it on bitches!” and meanwhile all the villagers crowded on the nearby dock – including our immigration lady – just stood there and watched, some of them even laughing at us.

*THACK! THACK! THACK! THACK! THACK!*

What had before been an unnerving sound, was now downright frightening.  There is a big difference between hearing a gun being fired and hearing a gun being fired at you.  I instinctually winched and scrunched away from the drunk colombian standing beside me and silently prayed to myself, please don’t shoot him, please don’t shoot him, please don’t shoot him. 

Though frightening, no one was freaking out.  We really had no real idea what was actually happening.  My mind began to race on its own to work out the exits.  If, with the next volley, that Colombian man’s chest suddenly exploded in puffs of life-vest and blood, I would want to get away quickly.  A second later though, my mind realised the futility of the situation.  This was not Hollywood.  If they actually started firing at us with that powerful gun there would be no ducking for cover, no rolling out of the boat and diving under the water, no using the dead man as a shield.  No, if they started firing at us, that gun would rip this entire boat apart and leave us all dead in seconds.  It was as simple as that.  So I sat there with everyone else, feeling extremely exposed, and waited for the next rounds of gunshots, a wait that made each second seem interminable.

Meanwhile, Walter had already given up on fixing the motor “under fire” and he quickly put his tools away and hopped back on board to start up the working outboard to drove us a kilometer down the river – and away from the guns – to another dock at the other side of the village.  Once there he got the motor fixed in about 20 minutes and we raced off to Bahia Solano, still hoping to catch that boat.

We got there just in time.  The cargo boat was already on it’s way out of the bay but Walter set a course to intercept it.  Pulling up alongside the big boat Walter yelled at the other Captain to stop, which he did.  The two colombian girls – the only ones with enough pesos on them – climbed on board while Walter dug out their bags from the mountain of luggage and bicycles at the front of the lancha and passed them up to them.  We waved a quick goodbye before pulling away to continue the rest of the way into Bahia Solano.  Walter’s wife drove, while he himself stayed sitting up on the bow with all the luggage.  They shared a knowing look with each other before both their faces split into two relieved smiles.

Walter’s day had turned out alright after all.

—-

It’s still unclear what was happening with the gunshots that day.  There were several theories.  One theory is that the military wanted Walter to move his boat away from the dock and fired warning shots to send that message.  Another theory is that they were just bored and f*cking with us.

dug out canoe in Jaque

dug out canoe in Jaque

Leaving Jaque early in the morning

Leaving Jaque early in the morning

Dug out canoe in Jaque

Dug out canoe in Jaque

Dug out canoe in Jaque

Dug out canoe in Jaque

Fish in Jaque being readied for transport ot Panama City

Fish in Jaque being readied for transport ot Panama City

Arriving in Jaque

Arriving in Jaque

 

 

 

 

 

Feb 06

The Good Ship Victoria C.

The good ship at sunrise

The good ship at sunrise

Meeting Victoria

The outboard engine roared as we bounced across the dark waters reflecting the lights of Panama city.  It was 8pm on a thursday night and we were in a small dinghy being taxied out to Victoria C. the cargo boat that would be our ride for the first leg of our journey into the Darien.  With me was Ali, Glenn and Niels, and I looked back to see all three of them peering ahead into the dark, trying to catch the first glimpse of our boat.  We had no idea what was waiting for us out there.

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On the Lancha in Panama city being shuttled out to the good ship Victoria C.

Earlier that day, Niels and I had gone down to the docks to purchase our tickets from the captain.  Our fare would be $25 per person, and after a brief discussion with the man in charge of the cargo, the bike would be an extra $10.  $35 for passage all the way to Jaque, a small fishing village near the Colombian border?!  It was almost too good to be true and as we left the cargo loading area we clung to our tickets as if afraid they would magically disappear.  Later that afternoon, Ali, Glenn and I had come back with our loaded bicycles and given them over to an old grizzly man missing half his teeth who would be in charged of loading them onto the boat.  He asked for $2 per bicycle.  We hadn’t argued.

“Is that our boat there?” Ally asked.  I turned back and scanned the darkness ahead of us, looking for a large cargo ship of some type up ahead of us.  I couldn’t see it.  “It might be…” Glenn seconded.  I looked again, but still couldn’t see it… unless it was… but no, that couldn’t be our boat… could it?  “Yeah, it is, yeah, that must be our boat” Niels confirmed.

Out of the darkness we could now make out a small wooden cargo boat, maybe 80 ft in length and covered with peeling paint.  It reminded me of the boats that I’d see on TV in Australia, the ones carrying asylum seekers.  We were looking at the Victoria C.

The good ship Victoria C.

The good ship Victoria C.

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Onboard the Victoria C.

Our lancha, which had already made 4 or 5 trips out to theVictoria, now pulled up for the last time alongside the heavily loaded boat.  As we clambered up on board, the lower deck was absolute chaos with people and crew moving around everywhere in darkness, dragging luggage, stepping over old ladies and tripping on the rudder chains.  We couldn’t move forward, we couldn’t move back, so we pushed our way to the steps leading up the upper deck like swimmers shooting for the surface.

We popped up onto a small back balcony, just as rammed with people, but we all managed to find a place to squeeze into.  Glenn disappeared somewhere in the direction of the steering house, Ally found a corner to squeeze into next to a couple of the guards, and Niels and I found a bit of floor space to sit down in at the top of the stairs we’d just come up.

Onboard the victoria

Onboard the victoria

We were far from comfortable.  To my left were five teenage school kids squeezed onto a bench for two and so I was half under and half sitting on a dozen feet.  Above me to my right, sitting on the guardrail, was the two other guards, dressed in heavy boots and full camouflage and doing their best to not point their large machine guns at anyone, which was tough considering that the two mothers to Niels´ left had already spread out blankets across the middle of the walkway and put 4 babies to bed.  Every time the guard closest to me shifted around, the barrel of his gun would graze my cheek or point worryingly at my collar bone.

Niels passed me over a box of wine and I took a grateful swig before passing it back to him.

“You know, I’m pretty used to being around guns these days, but I’m still not too chuffed about having one pointed at my neck.” I yelled at him over the sound of the engine.

The Victoria would be the first boat of three for our Darien crossing.  Click to Enlarge the Map.

The Victoria would be the first boat of three for our Darien crossing.
Click to Enlarge the Map.

He laughed and yelled back “Yeah, I know, and I sure do hate it when the barrel gets into my coffee!”

“Hopefully once we get moving and everyone settles down a bit more we will be able to find a more comfortable place!  If not, I’m climbing up on the roof!”  We had placed bets of the journey time and the estimates ranged from 16 to 24 hours, so a comfortable place to lie down would certainly be nice.

Just then, the engine noise kicked up another notch and small wake began to appear behind us.  The Victoria C. was on her way.

Two very different worlds

It was a surreal moment being there squeezed into the back of that old junk of a boat whilst the city lights of Panama’s skyscrapers and high rises slowly drifted by.  Out there were thousand dollar hotel rooms, million dollar apartments, and $300 bottles of champagne.  Out there were casinos filled with people placing $50, $100, $200 bets and fancy bars filled with dressed-up businessmen paying $11 for a $1 scotch.  Meanwhile, onboard the Victoria C. we had 60 souls squeezed in like sardines on an old, slow, rickety boat headed for the Darien.  Two very, very different worlds.

As we began to leave the city lights behind, I chatted with the cheeky school kids to my left, split a banana with the guard to my right and shared the cheap box of wine with Niels across from me.   I knew in that moment, as I shifted painfully to keep my legs from cramping up, that I was right where I wanted to be.  And it had only cost me $25.

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Good Morning Darién!

I woke up the next morning to a sky just beginning to turn pink from the rising sun.  I shifted in my sleeping bag in yet another attempt to get comfortable – forgetting for a moment where I was.  I was on the foredeck of the Victoria, 

P1040702squeezed in between barrels of petrol and a motorcycle.  My bed was a couple of gas cylinders.  I let out a long quiet groan before extracting myself from my sleeping bag so that I could go and take a piss over the side of the boat.  As I watched my arc of urine splash into the Pacific Ocean I thought for the thousandth time this trip that it sure is convenient at times to be a man.

The Victoria had made good progress through the night and we were being blessed with clear weather and calm seas.  She was now running along a wild verdant coast that rose up steeply from the ocean.  There was nothing out here, nothing, and the only change in scenery over the next 5 hours would be the comings and goings of a few groups of dolphins.

P1040707The first fishing village we came to was Playa Muerto (Death Beach), a small place that really needs a name change if they ever want to attract any tourists.  As we passed by the quiet black-sand beach sprinkled with thatched huts, two lanchas raced out to meet us.  One was a powerful looking police boat with four massive outboard engines on the back – obviously designed to chase down drug runners – while the other was villagers who had come out to unload any passengers or cargo.  A young man with a Playa Muerto football jersey hopped on board and chatted with us saying that there was a small hotel in the village, but that we’d be stuck there for the week waiting for the next cargo boat unless we hired a lancha to deliver us to the next town.  He said the cost would be around $200 dollars, to pay for the fuel.

It was then that I first fully appreciated just how remote these villages were.  No roads, no airstrip, just one slow cargo boat each week and a prohibitively expensive fuel bill to drive your lancha to the next town.

It was 12:30 pm when we finally arrived at Jaque, and a couple of lanchas braved the surf to come out and meet us.  After a bit of a wrestling match we managed to get the three bicycles untangled and dropped over the side of the Victoria into one of the dinghies bobbing in the water below.  As we pulled away, we gave a wave to the Captain in the steering house and said goodbye to the good ship Victoria C. - the workhorse of the Darien - as she headed back west to the previous town of Puerto Piña to unload her heavy cargo of fridges, freezers, petrol, gas cylinders and motorcycles.

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LEaving Panama City.

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My Assold Dog comes to collect people and supplies from the Victoria

My Assold Dog comes to collect people and supplies from the Victoria

On Land in Jaque

On Land in Jaque

—-

Ali and Glen have a blog for their Panamericana trip: www.cyclingtheamericas.com

Click here for general Information on the Gap

Travel Info:

The Victoria C. leaves roughly once a week from the docks by the seafood market near Casco Antiguo in Panama City.  Ask there for more information.  It costs $25 for the journey to Jaque.  Bring water and some food for the 16 to 24 hour journey.  I hope you get a bunk.

Immigration control is available (at the time of writing) in Jaque, but there are no banks or ATMs anywhere near here so be sure to bring enough cash to pay your way on to Bahia Solana. ($80) There is also a very basic hotel in Jaque ($5) to spend the night in if necessary and a place to use the internet.

 

 

 

Feb 05

Stage 7: Colombia and the Darien Gap AKA Operation: VICTORY LAP!!!

P1040760And so it all comes down to this: the seventh and final stage of the Tour de Zack y Tony.    Indeed, Operation: Wrong Way!, Operation: Fish Tacos!, Operation: Tequila! Tequila!, Operation: Glorious Ruination!, Operation: Jungle Boogie!, and Operation: Enduring Freedom! have all been completed, so just one more operation – Operation: VICTORY LAP!!! – stands between us and end of what has been one incredible journey from San Francisco to South America.

The final stage of the Tour will take us from the boat docks of Panama City to our finish line:  Medellin, Colombia.

Stage 7 Map

Stage 7 Map.  CLICK TO ENLARGE.

So join us for a journey by boat and by bike, as we village hop our way through the Darien and Colombia’s infamous Chocó province.  Join us as we get back on the road in Buenaventura – one of the most dangerous cities in the world – and climb up into the northern extremities of the Andes to Cali, the world capital of Salsa dancing.  Stick with Tony and I for our final days on the road as we journey north through the coffee region of Colombia. Finally, REJOICE with us as we arrive in the urban hot-spot and uber-cosmo city of Medellin to celebrate the end of the Tour with an aguardiente-fueled rrrrrumba of epic proportions.

This riding portion of this stage is the shortest of the trip at only 550 km (or so) long.

The last 550km.

——

Missed out on Stage 6 in Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama?  Check out the Stage 6 summary page.

Missed out on Stages 1 to 6? Check out the Tour de Zack y Tony page

Feb 04

Confronting the Darién Gap

The Final 90 km

DARIEN GAP

Having arrived in Panama City, it was time for Tony and I to finally confront a problem that we had been slowly approaching ever since turning south in San Francisco:  There is no road to Colombia.

Remarkably, the Darien Gap as it is known is the only break in the Pan-American Highway system which stretches over 20,000 km from Alaska to the southern tip of South America.  Most people aren’t aware of it’s existence until they are traveling in the region, at which point they become only too aware of it, as crossing The Gap can be a complicated and expensive endeavor.

It’s incredible that no one has solved this problem yet.  Think about it.  In the early 1900s the United States dug a trench from the Atlantic to the Pacific, a project that cost a Scrooge McDuck-sized pile of cash and thousands of lives just so that today we could enjoy quicker shipping times on our Amazon.com orders.  Later that century the British and the French (of all people) somehow agreed to work together to dig an underwater tunnel just so that today we could enjoy a rich coffee and crispy croissant for breakfast in Paris before catching a train to London for a warm, flat beer and a soggy sandwich for lunch.  We’ve even sent men to the moon and movie directors to the bottom of the ocean, so you would think that by now someone would have come up with a cheap and easy solution to cross 90 kilometers of jungle

That’s all it is.  From the end of the dirt track in Panama to the highway in Colombia, 90 measly kilometers of jungle are all that remain separating two massive continents and still we have to fly or take a boat.

This doesn’t make any sense.  Must be political.

Whatever the real underlying reason for this breach of pavement between Panama and Colombia, the current reality facing travelers in this part of the world is an intimidating one.  Though up to about 15 years ago it was still feasible for the most adventurous (read: crazy) travelers to undertake a long arduous trek via jungle track, indigenous villages and amazonian-esque rivers, today that option is simply not feasible.  Today the Darien province of Panamá and Colombia´s neighbouring province of Chocó has become a stronghold for drug-traffickers and Colombia’s guerrilla rebels the FARC.  In response, Colombia’s military and para-military also have a huge presence in the area.  In other words, the Gap is a very lucrative war-zone where life is cheap and passing through on foot is not considered safe for anyone, not even for the local indigenous people.  Even if you were willing to risk being robbed, kidnapped or killed, you would still need to evade the Panamanian and the Colombian authorities who have orders to not let anyone through.  Special permission can be attained, but then you would need to pay for said permission and be able to fund your own private army to escort you across.  Not exactly something most travelers budget for.

So for the average traveler, there are really only two options for making the trip from Panama to Colombia (or vice-versa): Fly or take a boat.

No good easy options for Tony and I

DARIEN MAP

When Tony and I arrived in Panama city we already knew the basics for crossing the Gap.  The closer one gets to the Darien, the more people like to talk about it, and the topic soon becomes impossible to avoid.  In the hostels in Panama City it’s pretty much all anyone cares about and the common areas are filled with people on their smartphones searching the internet for a cheaper or easier option to get across.  In the end though, everyone ends up taking the path of least resistance: an overpriced flight that is always overbooked (cost: approx $450), or a 5- day sailboat trip from Portobelo across the Caribbean to Cartagena via the beautiful San Blas Islands (high-season cost: $550).  For part of the year there is a third option: a fast boat from ___ to Turbo (Cost: $120 + $80 4WD transport to ____) but when the seas get too rough this service is suspended.  There are other variants on this theme, which I outline at the end of this post.

Suffice to say that Tony and I didn’t want to fly, as Tony would more than likely incur a $100 extra cost and I would have to go through the hassle of dismantling him and putting him into a cardboard box.  Nor did we want to dish out $650 (Tony costs $100) to be stuck on a sailboat for 5 days crowded with seasick backpackers as I am accustomed to sailing for free and the experience – though novel and unique for many – for us did not justify the cost.  Finally, the fast boat to Turbo was not running as the seas this time of year are rough and they weren’t running.

What did that leave us?  We’d have to find a cheeky solution to the problem.

A cheeky solution to the problem.

I decided to stage a two front attack on the Darien.  On the first front I began to sniff around for sailboats that needed linesman to crew with them through the canal.  I figured that if I could hitch a free ride through the canal, it would greatly increase my chances of bumping into the right people and finding another free ride to Colombia.  To this end I camped out by Balboa yacht club for a couple of days and asked around, getting some positive feedback but no promising leads, and in the end put up a notice on the empty bulletin board deciding I’d have better luck boat-hunting in Portobelo, a small town on the near Caribbean entrance of the canal

On the second front, I began what I like to call “passive research”.  That is, research that I don’t actually do myself but that I acquire by drinking copious amounts of coffee and tea in hostel common areas whilst eavesdropping on other people’s conversations.  People these days underestimate the value of drinking copious amounts of coffee and tea, as after just a couple of days I found myself tuning into an interesting conversation taking place between a young dutchman with a sailboat and an older Canadian guy who was planning on crossing the Darien on the Pacific side.  Jackpot baby!  I thought to myself and I slowly imposed myself on their private chat by dropping in the occasional choice nautical term or an apt anecdote that alluded to the fact I was traveling on a bicycle.  In a matter of minutes, I was in.

From the Dutch guy I learned that he was going to be going through the canal in a couple of months before starting his Pacific crossing – so he personally wouldn’t be able to help me – but he was able to provide me with some helpful details regarding the best way to go about finding myself another boat to crew on.

From the Canadian, an energetic, effusive, likeable man in his mid-sixties, I learned that 15 years ago he had been one of those adventurous (read: crazy) travelers who had hiked through the Darien.  He was now in Panama planning to cross the Darien yet again, this time along the Pacific Coast, and was just waiting for his three travel companions to arrive in Panama City.  The first was his old friend John – another hardcore crazy traveler who’d be flying in from Canada in a couple of days – and the number two and number three were John’s daughter Ally and her husband Glenn.  Ally and Glenn – it just so happened – were also traveling by bicycle (from Alaska) and would be rolling in early next week.

Niels’ excitement and optimism were contagious, and I listened as he painted me a romantic picture of catching rides with cargo boats and fishermen, village hopping in tiny dinghies and exploring the remote communities along the Darien coast before working our way down the desolate Colombian Pacific coast to arrive in Buenaventura, the most dangerous city in Colombia.  The cost and time frame for the journey were unknown but it would certainly be cheaper than $650 per person.  Even better, Niels thought he had a lead on a boat that would be leaving Panama City next thursday and would take us all the way to Jaqué, a small fishing village near the border.  Would I be interested in joining them?

Yes, I told him, yes I would.

With that decided, I got up to get myself another coffee.

 

——

This is the final post for Stage 6 of the Tour.  Check out the Summary Page! for photos and links to all the entries.

Options for crossing the Darien

Disclaimer:  The following has not been researched carefully and are based largely on word of mouth conversations.  Actual costs will vary.  There are of course more variants on the below mentioned options. 

FLIGHTS:

  • International flight from Panama City to Colombia.  Cost: approx $____.  Deals can be found if booked way in advance.  Flight are always full so last minute deals are unheard of.
  • Cheap domestic flight from Panama City to small panamanian town on border (caribbean side).  From there you cross the border to Colombia and then take a series of boats to Turbo.  From there you can continue your journey by bus.  Flight is apparently cheap, but must be booked far in advance as it is always full.  This is known as one of the quickest cheapest ways to cross the gap.

BOATS CARIBBEAN SIDE:

  • Speed Boat from ___ to Turbo, Colombia.  Boat is very fast 1-2 days, and costs around $120.  Getting to ___ however, a 4WD vehicle is necessary.  The full package from panama city therefore costs around $200.  Unfortunately this relatively new service only runs part of the year when the seas are calmer.
  • 5-day Sailboat from Portobelo, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia.  Costs $550 per person.  Includes two days in the San Blas Islands Robinson Crusoe style and all food.  Great option for someone with the cash and no sailing experience.  When seas are rough though, it is apparently a long rough windward stretch to Cartagena.  Boats have been known to give up and change course for Sapzurro (in Colombia near the border)due to a boat full of sea-sick backpackers.
  • 3 or 4 day Sail from Portobelo to Sapzurro.  $350  Shorter trip through the San Blas Islands, includes all meals.  From Sapzurro one must make their own arrangements to continue onto Turbo.

BOATS PACIFIC SIDE:

  • Almost unheard of, it is very possible to make the journey by boat from Panama City to Colombia along the the Pacific Coast.  More details on the next blog post.

OTHER:

  • Get special permission and hire a band of bodyguards to escort you across on foot.
  • Canoe it: either on the caribbean side, or on the pacific side. Don’t forget the paddle.
  • Hitch a ride on a sailboat from portobelo, Panama city, porvenir, the San Blas islands, or even Bocas de Toro!

 

 

 

 

Jan 29

The End of a Continent!

The Bridge of the Americas.

Tony poses in front of the Bridge of the Americas

Tony poses in front of the Bridge of the Americas

In the end, it took Tony and I five days to ride the 440km from David to Panama City.  It was a journey that in our minds was a blend of raw perseverance, blissful satisfaction, and triumphant nostalgia, as we were very aware that this was the final push and the end of the road for us in Central America.

 

Las Lajas:  Camp spot 1

Las Lajas: Camp spot 1

The five day trip was far more enjoyable than I had expected and I was continually reminded of all the generosity and kindness that Tony and I have received over the last 13 months on our journey from San Francisco.  We had good camp spots each night (twice on beautiful beaches, once with the police, and once with another gover

nment agency), we had no flat tires, no frustrating bike problems and for two days and one night we had company riding with Robi and Monika from Switzerland who we first met in Costa Rica.  Our last night before Panama City Tony and I rolled up to Playa Santa Clara at sunset and within 15 mins of arriving I was offered a safe place to camp on the beach, a chair to sit in, two huge plates of food and an ice-cold sweaty Panama beer – all for free.  My Karma account be surely be running in the red these days.

Robi and Monika

Robi and Monika

On the 10th of January, 2013 I woke up before sunrise and loaded Tony up for what would be a long day as we were still 120km from Panama City.   It was our last day riding in Central America and as I watched the kilometer markers slowly count down our arrival I was filled with mixed emotions.  Part of me wanted to explode out from within and celebrate the end of the trip as in many ways this was the end of the road for us – it could even be my last day on the road with Tony.  Yet another part of me held back, knowing that my journey with Tony would most likely continue in Colombia for our ¨victory lap¨.  The future was unclear – as it so often is – and would remain so until I came up with a plan to cross the Darien Gap.

coffee

coffee

P1040638

Playa Santa Clara, night four

When the Puente de las Americas came into view though, my hesitation pulled a Houdini and all I was left with was an overwhelming sense of pure jubilation.  It didn’t matter if we were going to keep riding after that day, the Bridge of the Americas, a majestic steel truss bridge that arches across the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal, is an undeniable benchmark for any traveler who has made a long journey from the North.  At the top of the bridge’s arch, we stopped on the shoulder-less edge of the road to enjoy the view, oblivious to the traffic roaring by us.  In front of me, over a hill, I could make out the skyscrapers and high-rises of Panama City, to my left was the entrance to the Panama Canal and the Miraflores locks, and to my right was the Pacific Ocean and – somewhere out there – Guam and Australia.  Behind me there was no view to enjoy, just a bit of highway and jungly hill.  But that’s not what I saw.  Behind me, I saw over 12,000 km of road stretching out and winding its way through nine countries before arriving at yet another bridge – a not-so-golden one - that Tony and I had stood in front of 13 months earlier.  From where I was standing now, that day seemed a lifetime ago.

Camp spot night two with the police

Camp spot night two with the police

The End of Stage 6

Panama City was the end of the road for us in Central and North America, and therefore the end of Stage 6 of the Tour de Zack y Tony AKA Operation: Enduring Freedom.  Stage 6 had carried us from the border of Honduras through Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama lasting 62 days and 1,859 kilometers.  Now that we are in Panama city we will spend the next week investigating our various options for crossing the infamous Darien Gap.  The Darien is the final obstacle standing between us and our long sought goal of South America.  Once we cross it we will be in Colombia for the seventh and final stage of the Tour de Zack y Tony – also aptly know as: Operation: Victory Lap!

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P1040660

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—-

Missed part of Stage 6?  Check out our Summary page!

Also check out our updated The THANK YOU! List  and Bike Buddies Pages!

 

 

 

 

 

Jan 06

The Final Push

We got NO brakes.

On the 2 of January, exactly 1 year after crossing the US/Mexican Border, I loaded up Tony for the first time since his accident, said my goodbyes to the boys at Mamallena and set out on the easiest ride of the entire trip.  I was going 40 km to the city of David, and it was all downhill or flat.

As I came to the first corner, I applied my back brake (I had no front brake), and to my dismay we continued rolling with virtually no detectable deceleration.  Brakes can really come in handy at times.  I like brakes, and having recently been in an accident, I felt a little more strongly about their necessity than normal.  I hopped off the bike, and gave the rim a good scrub.  This was the rim that had been on my front wheel before, the same rim that Manny, that legend of a mechanic in Baja California, Mexico, had acquired for me second hand from a friend in Ensenada and charged me $3.50 for almost a year ago.  There was a bit of WD40 on it, a bit of crud, and the brake pads were new, so after cleaning it up I got back on the bike and rode off again.

As I came to the second corner, I applied my back brake, and to my dismay we continued rolling with virtually no detectable deceleration.  Dammit!  I hopped back off the bike and had a look at the brake set up again.  I tightened up the cable a bit after discovering that the cable adjustment on the lever was not working.  Then, having second thoughts, I tightened up the cable a lot figuring that if the brakes weren’t working, what did it matter if they rubbed a little bit?

Getting back on the bike, I tested out the brakes again.  Finally, I felt a slight tug of deceleration.  Nothing very reassuring mind you, but at least I had something.  I came up to the third corner and applied my brake and put my heel to the ground and we came to a slow and gradual stop.

I decided, with only 40 km of straight clear road to David, I could make it there with no brakes.  I would just have to take it very, very slowly.  I worked out that if I kept my speed under 20 kph and the road was more or less flat, I could stop in about 200m without the use of my heel, and so I cruised my way down the highway, and in the process wrote my first spanish song of the trip.  The title Hoy no tengo frenos, translates to “Today I have no brakes” and is to be sung to the tune of Yo no sé Mañana by Luis Enrique.  Here is the chorus as a taster.

Hoy no tengo frenos. Yo no tengo frenos.

No puedo frenar para nada.  Este es una mamada.

No podia arreglarlos aqui, entonces me voy por alli

para ver si puedo conseguirme unos nuevos

Hoy no tengo frenos.  Yo no tengo frenos.

Ojala no choque la bici…

Stuck in David.

David is a very unattractive place.  Located on the Pan-American highway in the far west of Panama, it´s the third largest city in Panama despite having only 150,000 in habitants, and it is the only decently sized urban centre west of Panama City.  It serves as a transport, banking, industry, agricultural, commercial, and ranching hub to all of Chiriqui Province and is located on the Pan-American Highway.  The city is laid out as a grid of streets, everyone drives, and it is hot and dusty.  But, some might argue, it is real Panama.

Most travelers spend just one night in David and they only tend to do that when they can’t catch the connecting bus they need.  I ended up spending a record four days there.

I got stuck for a variety of reasons – fixing up the bike, cute panamanian girl, getting ill – but I think a big part of it was that I just didn’t want to get on my bike and ride the 440km to Panama City on a famously hot section of the Pan-American Highway.  I just wasn’t looking forward to it.

The Final Push.

Today though.  I am finally leaving.  My back brakes are still shithouse (couldn’t find better brake pads in David), and though my front brakes now work, my disc is all bent up (couldn’t find a new disc in David) so I’ll be riding against them slightly the whole way.

In many ways this is the final big push of the trip.  It is definitely the last long leg of Stage 6.  Once in Panama City, I am a day’s ride from Portobelo, and from there, I am in Colombia.

There is absolutely nothing to see on this 440 km stretch of highway.  I will pass through a few small towns along the way, but for the most part it will be just highway.  As it is more or less flat it will probably take me 5 days to get there.  Five days of heat, boring highway, and camping in non-picturesque spots.

Well… I suppose if we´ve come this far…

____

A special shout-out goes out to my man Toto, the best mechanic in David with the best collection of random spare second hand parts.  He also gave me a Panamanian Cycling Jersey… So I guess now I’m sponsored!

 

My Panamanian cycling jersey, a gift from my mechanic Toto here in David

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