Panama - mile 11765

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September 30th 2009
Published: December 3rd 2009
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A Banana Bridge forms the border between Costa Rica and Panama. For miles and miles on either side of the border there are vast banana plantations with blue plastic bags covering the bunches of bananas hanging on the trees to ensure that they reach our supermarkets in pristine condition. Going down to the border there are container depots everywhere including the Man from Delmonte - its the first real industrial area we have passed for weeks, everywhere else has been pristine, green tropical countryside and little villages.

The banana bridge is what it says - basically a bridge across the river to carry the train that carries the bananas. Being a railway bridge its got train tracks down the centre and a couple of planks on either side - well there are planks most of the way down, every now and then one has rotted away and there is a big hole instead. Its these planks you ride along sounding your horn to encourage pedestrians and bicycles to get out of the way - stopping on the bridge is tricky as the planks are raised up above the rails so when you try to put your feet down they just don't reach the ground and you topple over. It seems odd really, given the Americanisation of Costa Rica the border is well and truly 3rd world with just two tiny huts at either end for formalities.

When we get into Panama we don't really have a lot of time to see it. We have 1½ days to cover the 460 odd miles to Panama City as the bike is booked on a flight from Panama City to Bogota. This is due to the Darien Gap a 100 mile stretch of swampland between Panama and Colombia. There are no roads through the Darien Gap. Some adventurous soles have crossed it but it takes months using little local boats. And at the moment there is a lot of guerilla activity there so we have wimped out and taken the easy option of flying over it.

The countryside we do see is typically green and tropical and we have to cross the continental divide again going up and over the mountains from the north to the south - this means lots of twisty mountain roads that motorcyclists enjoy so much. The village houses here are mostly wooden huts with thatched roofs, all very smart looking and they seem much more at home in the jungle than the shabby concrete houses. As we came down from the mountains we ran into another tropical rainstorm with the typical torrential rain that turns the roads into rivers. We were approaching our overnight stop at David but the rain was so heavy we couldn't even see the road signs let alone read them so we overshot the town and had to do our usual asking of locals for directions. Despite the heavy rain the locals are more than happy to stand there are give us directions - this has been true for the whole of Central America. In some places they just say follow me and go out of their way to lead you to your destination - they always seem so proud to be able to help you and take you where you want to go.

Rather bizarrely you have to ride north from David on the Pacific coast to get to Panama City (have a look at a map, Panama runs west to east rather then north to south like the picture I have in my head). It feels wrong to be
banana plantationbanana plantationbanana plantation

complete with blue bags to make sure the bananas reach us in tip top condition
going north after all these weeks of constantly heading south. We were supposed to ride into Panama City (big place with lots of traffic) as a group following expedition leader Kevin who had been there several times before. We were at the back of the group when a lorry decided to execute a 15 point turn directly in front of us and go down the road in the opposite direction. When we eventually got past the lorry, and ensuing traffic chaos the other bikes were nowhere in sight and we were alone on the outskirts of Panama City. So we just trundled along following the directions; over the Bridge of the Americas with views of the sea front and ships queuing to go through the canal, along the waterfront with nice views of the city's modern skyline, turn left up towards a big church, a few more turns along busy road, drive through the casino car park and arrive at hotel. Only when we got to the hotel there were no other bikes there - strange. The very excited bell boys assured us that we were in the right place and that they were expecting lots of bikes and the receptionist had a big list with our names on it. About 20 minutes later the others turned up - they had taken 2 wrong turns (due to new road layouts apparently) and taken the “scenic route” to the hotel. We felt rather proud of our navigation skills.

Edwin spends a whole day at the airport cargo terminal filling out forms and handing over dollars before finally waving goodbye to the bike. Hopefully we will see it again in a few days time in Bogota. Now we have 1 free days to explore Panama City. Although our site seeing was curtailed a bit by the death of ex-president Endara (the first president after Noreiga was ousted) as the whole country went into a day of mourning followed by a national holiday on the day of the funeral. Luckily this didn't stop the wheels of international commerce from turning so we went off to see the Panama Canal. Its a well impressive engineering feat with 3 locks at either end raising and lowering ships 26 meters above sea level. Its amazing watching a fully laden container vessel being raised up in a lock just like a canal boat back home. The brain just cant quite get to grips with the scale. It takes the ships 10 hours to travel the 48 miles from the Pacific to the Caribbean and they pay around US$100,000 for the privilege but I suppose its a hell of a lot quicker and easier then going round Cape Horn..

After lunch, with the funeral over and road blocks gone, we were able to venture into Casco Viejo, the old city, with its old colonial buildings and lots of character. Its certainly a contrast to the new glitzy cosmopolitan areas that make the city so popular with European and US ex-pats looking for a warm and sunny retirement spot. The new part is totally different to any other city in Central America. With the new city come nice restaurants so off we go for a really nice Italian meal (we have survived on refried beans for the last few weeks so we don't feel at all guilty that we are not eating local food) and some nice Italian wine. Only there's a problem as its the day of the ex-president's funeral you are not supposed to drink alcohol, the restaurant gets around this by serving the very
the second banana bridgethe second banana bridgethe second banana bridge

you used to have to cross this but a 2 months ago they opened a brand new road bridge
nice wine in plastic cups!! A very central american solution.

Tomorrow its yet another country, and a new continent as we head of to meet up with the bike in Colombia.

Additional photos below
Photos: 22, Displayed: 22


mountain viewsmountain views
mountain views

its looking cloudy in the distance
tropical rain stormtropical rain storm
tropical rain storm

this was taken after the worst of the storm had passed. During the peak of the storm it was impossible to see 2 feet in front of you.
being greeted by enthuastic bell boysbeing greeted by enthuastic bell boys
being greeted by enthuastic bell boys

when we left they gave us a key ring of photos of Panama City to carry onthe bike for good luck.
Panama Canal - Miraflores LockPanama Canal - Miraflores Lock
Panama Canal - Miraflores Lock

a contaner ship being raised
Casco Viejo - the old townCasco Viejo - the old town
Casco Viejo - the old town

typical street scene
Casco Viejo - the old townCasco Viejo - the old town
Casco Viejo - the old town

the cathedral where ex-president Endara's funeral took place this morning
Casco Viejo - the old townCasco Viejo - the old town
Casco Viejo - the old town

views back to the new town. The ruins in the foreground are the remains of Club Clases y Tropas where General Noreiga used to hang out

8th December 2009

Navigation Skills
Bravo............ getting to the hotel in Panama City without your guide...........and ahead of the group BUT did you cheat and use Tom Tom? Rather you than me on the Banana bridge David & Diana

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