Crossing the Darien Gap from Miramar to Turbo

Published: April 29th 2008EDIT THIS ENTRY

Thought I'd start up the blog because I wish there had been more info on crossing the Darien with a motorcycle so now I post this because I realize that there are some people who read this blog and well, I think it will be useful to future travelers. I will fill in more or less what has ahappened on this trip, going backwards since right now I am in a place where I am happy, Colombia, and that has cheap internet, and I have nothing to do but wait right now.
In Panama I set off to sort out a boat. I had some ilussions about crossing the Darien by land, but I heard they won't even let you past the military checkpoints to try. After riding in the jungle a little with a german guy named Leo, I realized the impossibility of such a venture after having my first motorcycle incidents with slick mud, my rear view mirror being the casualty. Not to mention the high possibility of run ins with smugglers or guerillas who may not have anything against me but might worry about me talking when the police or paramilitaries got their hands on me, and may consider the high possibility that a ransom could be gotten for me.
So I decided to do what most motorcyclists making this trip do, go with a sailboat. After enquiries in portobelo, a town down the coast from Colon, I found one colombian who immediately struck me as an alcoholic who offered to take me for 700. I said no, and he recommended I go to Wunderbar, a hostel run by a man named Guido. Guido offered to take me for 600, and I decided I would do this. I had a bad time at this hostel. HIs wife, Silvia, turned out to be a horrid bitch(maybe because she has a 5 month old baby who is teething) but it made my stay very unpleasant. Leo, who had been working for them for a couple months in order to pay his passage on guidos boat with his Africa Twin, was also fed up with her crap and decided to leave with me when I left. In the end, she ended up lying to me about the boat being full, since I guess her dislike for me ran that deep, and I decided to wash my hands of it and do things my own way, hopefully staying away form europeans.
The europeans I have met on this trip have mostly seemed to be hedonists on cocaine alcohol parties from hostel to hostel shedding money in their wake. I have also developed an aversion to Israelis after being made very unwelcome at an Israelyish hostel in Panama for my free spirit. I am a person who does much better sleeping under the stars and I get along much better with third worlders lately.
Leo was very cool though. We went up a fun dirt road to a town called Santa Isabel. Incredibly friendly people and a beautiful river and beach. I asked a couple guys sitting on a porch chatting if I could buy some coconuts from their trees since I was thirsty. They gave us a couple coconuts and we got to chatting with one guy who turned out to be the towns teacher. He offered us an empty room in his house so we moved our stuff there.
I was interested in trying to do something so I asked if we could borrow someones canoe and go up the river. We met everyone in the town and asked a lot about life there. Everyone was extremely friendly, such a contrast to the last few days in the hostel being attacked by silvia all the time for one thing or another. We went up the river which was dense rainforest with plantain plantations here and there. The dugout canoe was very unstable, you have to keep it from capsizing with only your balnce, and there were three of us in it. We almost capsized a few times and Leo asked "Are there any crocodiles in this river?" and the teacher replied simply "Yes." and said nothing more. There were many brightly colored birds around the river banks and dense and interesting plant life. We rowed down until the skin was rubbing off my hands, because I am not used to rowing and then rowed back up.
I took a swim in the river and the water was like velvet. I swam to the other bank and then 3 kids on the other side waved at me, dropped their bicycles, and swam over. We lifted up a big log and threw it in the water together, and then spent half an hour having a log balancing contest, to see who could stay on the log the longest. I maybe won once. Then I left for lunch which was chicken and coconut rice or something like that. All the food on the caribbean coast seems to include coconut.
In the night we went out and got drunk. 1 of the towns bars was closed because there had been a fight, unfortunately the one with pool tables. At the other bar everyone was watching Ultimate fighting championship to the soundtrack of blasting colombian music. Only a few people were talking, most were just staring at the tv. We talked a little bit- I shared my conservative views on education with several local parents. We started to get hungry but there were no restaurants in town, so I made a suggestion that would probably seem unacceptable in the european circles, I just said to the teacher that we could go and buy ingredients, then go to his friends house and have his friends wife make us dinner. And so we had an excellent meal, along with more beers, some cuban and some colombian music.
The teachers friend was colombian and was racked with emotion with some songs and howled them out, almost weeping. Later he passed out. All this day I had been trying to find a cheap boat to San Blas, the idyllic caribbean island chain off the coast of panama, hoping to find another boat to Puerto Obaldia, a town on the colombian border. No luck. I enjoyed talking about hunting, a hobby I have been wanting to pursue for several years, with a local guy who told me stories about the huge jaguars and pumas of the old days. We saw a skin of one, very beautiful and soft for a wild animal. We headed back, pretty drunk by now, and passed out in the guest room. I was woken up by Leo howling and moaning and slapping himself as he sobered up around 4 in the morning and became aware of all the mosquitoes biting him. I am a little bit more able to sleep with mosquitoes biting me because of all the practice I had in Africa, but he was practically in a rage. Mercifully, the dawn came and we head out on the road having said our goodbyes to the friendly and hospitable teacher.
More fun riding back, with a total of 5 river crossings, some very deep so that I got water in my air box and the bike died for a little while. In miramar Leo and I split up and I immediately found a boat with some Kuna for San Blas. It was a thirty foot oversized canoe and we put the bike in the bow. I payed 50 dollars and the trip took about 3 or 4 hours. I probably could have bargained lower. The san blas islands were very white sand and blue water and palm trees, like the one desktop photo on windows or all those pictures of caribbean islands. I read about three books in the three days I was on El Porvenir. I found out the better way to do this trip would be to go to Carti, then get a boat to Nargana, and then on to Obaldia or Capurgana. But anyway, I was already there, and I got sort of lucky. I talked to a lot of people on the island and was there three days with no boats. Then suddenly, peter, a german captain, and his girlfriend paola, the italian daughter of leonardo woke me up at seven and asked me how much I would pay to go to colombia. I said 150. They counter offered 250 and I was groggy so I accepted.
Then I found out why there was a boat going to colombia. Leonardo, Paolas father, ahd gotten in a catastrophic fight with his very young hard partying colombian girlfriend, a really passionate full of life seeming woman. An argument started over nothing had escalated to her trying to stab him and throw herself off the side of the boat even though she doesn't know how to swim... oooh very ugly, any way, she had neglected to get an exit stamp from colombia so leonardo and she would both be in big trouble if he just left her there, so he had to take her to colombia and he actually wanted me to be there to protect him in case she flipped out again. Man, the price should have been cheaper but I had already agreed. Anyway, we I stayed on his boat for 2 or 3 nights and we got rid of her in sapzurro. We unloaded my bike into a launch for 5 dollars and i sent it off to turbo after 3 days staying with a chilean, for 50 dollars. Cargo boats can't take passengers so I took the passenger boat 25 dollars... so total cost from panama to colombia with a road 375 dollars, and I didn't pay much food or lodging so it ended up about 200 dollars cheaper.
Leonardo was a great character... he blamed the failure of his relationship with Jessica on cultural difference, her fault for being colombian, but I think rather that it was more his fault for being italian. He is a devoted marxist who gave up his career as a high energy physicist teaching at cambridge, stanford, harvard, etc. and doing research for a salary in excess of 10k per month to sail. We got along really well, I only resent him because I mentioned that I had on my ipod tchaikovsky's piano concerto number 1 and he asked me who the performer was and I said I didn't know, then he snapped "you don't understand music! Why am I talking about music with you?!?" But he is a pianist and his daughter was a concert pianist too with her first performance in new york at age 8. But she is now 18 and hasn't touched a piano in 4 years, and won't say why. He also said that keith jarrett is better than mozart, bach, best of all time.. I don't agree. He said that Gary Jennings is better than shakespeare, dostoevsky etc, I also don't agree. But very strong opinions and very interesting.
I hiked a little in the jungle near sapzurro, incredibly beautiful, maybe the most beautiful forest I have seen. I bathed alone in a big waterfall, I saw lots of the poison dart frogs that I had previously only seen in the zoo, along with many species of butterfly and bird. The mud on the paths was intense though, I got dirty. Such rich vegetation and so much life, and colombia struck me as being more like africa right off the bat. Now in Turbo it's much more friendly, sapzurro and capurgana are very touristy, but very beautiful. Colombian food is excellent so far, full of flavor, really well cooked. Aguila, the beer is always very cold and tasty. There is an unbelievable percentage of the population made up of the most beautiful women I have ever seen, and they are also friendly and approachable... much better than in panama, or anywhere in central america for that matter. There are motorcycles everywhere, motorcycle heaven. Its fairly cheap too, I have a nice room for about 8 dollars, with cable shower etc, and a class meal is about 3 dollars, cheap one 1 to 1.50. It's good since I spent the last week sleeping in hammocks. I am here just in time for the rainy season, and wow, it pours sometimes, but as those of you familiar with the tropics know, this is a very beautiful phenomenon, to sit watching the pounding rain and watch streams be born out of nothing. The energy is crackling, music everywhere, and everyone is extremely welcoming and friendly, especially the people who aren't black. The black people are also very friendly, but I think they are more reserved or suspicious of my whiteness,and I have yet to understand the racial dynamic of this country. My guess is that there is some racism, but its definitely less than in the US. In any case I am so far very very impressed with this country and looking forward to getting to know more of it. I am planning on going to parque tairona near santa marta and go on hike to a lost city that some americans told me about, they said it was very interesting. First I have to work on the bike, which is currently running terribly. but so far colombia is in my top ten favorite countries for sure. I recommend it to everyone, it is no more difficult or dangerous than honduras or guatemala. until next time!


30th April 2008

Nice to have you back sasha
Almost 2 years of break! I nearly thought you had given up blogging since your last blog from kisangani to mwanza (which ended abruptly...). Just by luck I was checking tonight and 'Oh you are back'. Anyway I really like your blogs and I hope they keep coming from now on again. I particularly was struck by your story in ivory coast (during the war) and all you went through in CAR with those policemen and the democratic republic of congo... Anyway glad to have you back as it sounds you are now around central america. It might be nice to include some photos when possible (suggesting as for the current panama blog which looks pretty dry without...). Ok see you around
3rd May 2008

Wow!!!! Good lack for your new journey!!
Wow!! Alex I still admire your curiousity, and your entusiasm in travelling to such an interesting and in the same time dangerous places... KEEP up doing it!!!!!!!!!11 Nargis, Khorog
13th June 2008

Walking into Colombia
Just a hello from a fellow traveler. I've been doing a lot of thinking about my earlier travels when I was in my 20s. One such trip was a three day walk from Puerto Obaldia to Acandi. The trip to Obaldia was by supply boat, packet to the gills, and about to sink with every wave. There were about 15 other travelers who made the trip, but unfortunately for me, my spot was top side and I got pretty well burned by the sun. Again, the trip to Obaldia was long, but we managed to visit many villages as well as a short hop to the San Blas Islands. All but a few of us paid to get to Acandi by dugout plus motor. The few that remained walked for three days along mostly well worn trails, although from time to time we'd still get lost. One such trail lead us to cliffs overhanging the ocean, and we ended up in a precarious situation that finally resolved itself. We slept in vacant churches that we assumed were used when the priests visited, and on hard and cold cement floors. For food, we paid a local family to cook something for us since there weren't any restaurants. At the top of the final hill before Colombia was a large monolith, about 2 meters wide, and about 4 meters high (if memory serves). On the Panama side of the structure was a metal plate engraved with the seal of Panama, and on the Colombia side was the same. Shortly thereafter we entered Acandi, and then by motor sail to Turbo. There was a night we slept by a cool fresh water creek, and for which served as a bath as well. Although some had come for the drugas, I came for the experience. And, the Darien experience was but one part of an entire 12 months travel, from Portland to Cuenca. Its difficult to talk to people about the experiences because there are so many skeptics, and I don't have pictures, only letters sent to my mom. And the other thing is that I never really thought it was a big deal, but some people get wacked about my journeys, so I don't talk too much about it, not even to my family. How do you explain that for the majority of the time, I slept in the open, in tall grass, under trees, where ever I could find what looked to be safe, and that its even harder to convince people that my body (not me consciously) began to learn to sleep with my eyes open. For months before I got back to Mexico, my eyes would burn when I woke up. A guy I hitched with from Guatemala to Texas told me one day that he'd seen me in total sleep next to his VW bug (sleeping on the ground), but my eyes were open, and it really weirded him out. Don't know why, but it was what it was. Even today, I sleep on my hand, a memory of the days sleeping on the earth I guess. My wife doesn't know why I do it, but it just happens. So anyway, from North America to South, from Spain, North Africa, the Middle East and Afganistan, and back, I thank you for letting me write in your space.

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