Panama and crossing the Darien Gap

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Central America Caribbean » Panama » Panamá » Panama City
December 2nd 2012
Published: December 19th 2012
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Sunday 25/11/12 – Our first night in Panama was surprisingly quiet. Despite the lack of anything else satisfactory in this ‘hotel’, the walls must be thick as we were not kept awake by any activities in the neighbouring rooms. Although just before we went to sleep there was an argument going on right outside our room which sounded pretty rowdy; I opened the door and asked if everything was OK, surveyed the scene and immediately shut the door and went back to bed – I didn’t want to get involved.

We rode across Panama today and took in the beautiful scenery. Unfortunately parts of the North are flooding at the moment and a few of the highway exits plunge immediately into dirty brown water. There were police everywhere but none stopped us, I think they had more important matters to attend to as I regularly saw police vehicles towing small boats and jet skis. In the afternoon we rode across the canal over a huge bridge and down into the squalor of Panama City. Immediately we became lost in the network of dirty streets with towering dilapidated communist style brick and cement apartments that were built in the 70s, now with no windows or doors and likely a 200% occupancy rate. After becoming completely lost, we accidently stumbled across the hostel we were looking for and it was a relief to get ourselves and our bikes off the streets. It was an adventure trying to manoeuvre the bikes into the small garden behind the hostel which involved much swearing and scraping. We then headed out into the city to check it out and were totally unimpressed with the amount of rubbish and dirt around the city. It reminded us of the few Caribbean cities we have been through were people just throw the rubbish on the streets without a thought. We returned to the hostel in the evening by skirting soiled mattresses, piles of rubbish and rubble. One of the few highlights of the city that we saw was the local buses that are extravagantly decorated in the most gaudy decorations and tassels. They drive past with reggae blaring at ear-splitting volume with huge air horns and diesel smoke pouring out the back. Probably their best feature is their crazy paintjobs all over the buses. They usually have a wizard with a crystal ball, or the typical muscly herculean type guy with a loin cloth and his sword raised aloft with lightning in the sky and his bikini clad woman clutching at his knee looking up at him – it’s incredible and must cost them a fortune as there are no panels on their buses that are not painted in gaudy colours.

Monday 26/11/12 – The canal is really what has put Panama on the map so we decided to check it out. We were a little ambitious and arrived via taxi well before the visitors centre opened. We spent another 45 minutes watching the local birds play on the superbly manicured lawns before the doors were opened and we were allowed to enter. We perched ourselves on the fourth floor balcony and watched 2 huge container ships pass through the canal levies. It was amazing to watch the huge boats (that barely cleared the sides by about 2 metres) piloted through by heavy trams and tug boats and then see them rise as the levies were filled. The facility also had a theatre and museum that detailed the history of the canal and the future expansion that is currently underway.

We returned to the city via the Kawasaki dealer that was closed for the public holiday that no-one had told us about, and then headed out to the mall so Kenz could watch the trite, erroneous, fallacious atrocity that is the current (or all) Twilight movie(s). I couldn’t lower myself to watch such garbage, so I went to see the new Bond film. It was strange to watch a movie in a non-English speaking country, the people laughed at some strange things.

After returning to the hostel, we did exciting things like laundry, cleaning bike chains and try to glue the many holes in our motorcycle boots. We also sprayed half a can of odour-eater in the boots but it didn’t work – there was far too much odour for the eater’s appetite. We chilled out in the evening talking to some fellow Australian travellers (Bernie and Trevor) who are wandering their way across the world hoping to end up in Africa. The hostel always plays a local radio station that cycles through about 4 songs over and over including Gangnam Style, some Katie Perry song, a classic by One Direction, and some rubbish reggae song. After an hour I wanted to stab myself in the ears but about 6 hours later I was tapping along and bopping to the music – it’s amazing what blanket marketing can do, if you hear something enough you end up liking it or believing it. I have a high tolerance for repetitive music as I once listened to the song ‘Gold’ by Spandau Ballet on repeat for 12 hours a day for 4 days straight (just to see how it would affect my mental state – it was a good lesson in endurance), but Kenz was struggling tonight.

Tuesday 27/11/12 – Today we returned to the Kawasaki dealer and purchased a few odds and ends. We then spent the day living the high-life by doing more laundry, more bike maintenance, more boot gluing, more failed odour eating, more talking and more Gangnam Style foot tapping.

Wednesday 28/11/12 – We packed up early and prepared ourselves for the 4 night boat trip to Colombia. Panama and Colombia are separated by a stretch of almost impenetrable dense jungle and swamp (the Darien Gap) that cannot by traversed by vehicle. I think a few non locals have walked it before but it is thought to be an almost suicidal task since the Colombian civil war in the 1990s, as the Darien area remains a guerrilla hangout. I did read that someone once did an all land crossing of the Darien gap in a jeep taking 741 days to travel the 201 km distance, but we don’t have that sort of time up our sleeves (I think the fastest motorcycle all land crossing is about 50 days). Instead we booked passage on an 85-foot vessel which has the capacity to take motorcycles. We agreed to meet the captain of the ship (a Slovenian man called Michael) and the first mate (a Colombian girl called Majo) in a hotel car park at 11am, they finally showed up at 1:30pm without an apology or explanation. We followed them for two hours as we travelled north to the small port of Carti. We travelled close to the Darien Gap before turning off into some land owned by the local indigenous people. The road through the mountains was testing with many parts being washed away by floods, and some very steep hills and valleys. Eventually we passed a truck that had recently rolled over and down a small embankment, rode over a stretch of thousands of leafcutter ants covering the road, crossed a small military checkpoint, and arrived at a river mouth near the coast. The locals have an agreement with the government so only their boats can be used to transport people out to the nearby islands or vessels, so Michael and Majo jumped on a boat with all their supplies and rode off into the sunset without saying much more than “Don’t leave for another hour” to us. After some discussion and payment with the locals we managed to organise a canoe to take us and the bikes out to the ship. I put my trust in these local indigenous men and allowed them to organise the transport out. We removed the panniers and then drove the bikes right to the edge of the crumbling dirt river bank so the front wheel was about 3 inches from the 2 metre drop down to the river. I was a little worried about the physical competence of the 5 men who were to lift our bikes up and put them on the tiny canoe (I was over a head taller than all of them, none of them were even wearing proper shoes - although one guy did have crocs!). They confidently dragged the front wheel of the bike into the canoe (whose side was now only about a foot from the water) and then had a discussion about what to do next. It must have got serious as they all kicked off their thongs and started arguing. Kenz could barely watch as somehow they managed to lay the bike down on its side with the waters of the river barely an inch from flowing over the side of the canoe. Kenz’s bike was installed in the canoe in a similar fashion, this time in front of mine and leaning the other way as to balance the canoe. In the middle of Kenz’s bike being carried on, the ring leader noticed her taking photos and yelled at everyone to stop so he could smile at the camera!

With the bikes, our luggage and ourselves (safely?) on the canoe we then headed down the river, into the bay and out to the Independence. The captain (who was snuggly clothed in nothing but his old-man underpants) then instructed us to tie some ropes onto the front and back of the bikes. He then winched them up and onto the top deck of the vessel in a very unsafe and OMG-we-are-all-going-to-die type fashion and then strapped them down securely. The canoe then took us to a hostel at the nearby island, however there was some confusion and we couldn’t stay there. They took us back to the Independence and a huge 3 way argument ensued between the canoe man, Majo and the captain. Apparently the electricity generator was broken on the island (although all the lights were still going!) so I think the locals just wanted more money. The captain almost ‘split a log’, he was going totally off his head in that crazy eastern European accent and ended up screaming at us to get on his boat, and then told the locals that their services were no longer required. We ended up spending the night on the ship where the under-pants clad captain entertained us with stories of his career as a captain on the high seas. At this stage of the journey we thought he was literally crazy – we later revised that observation to be 2/3 crazy and 1/3 asshole. It got a bit strange later in the night when he was trying to convince me that the world governments were beginning a process of global human extermination where 95% of the population would be systematically killed – he says the global financial crisis was the beginning of the world-governments plan. I enjoy talking to people like this, they are always interesting plus it makes me feel much more normal!

We slept under the stars on the top deck with the warm wind blowing on us. It was a great way to relax after a REALLY stressful day.

Thursday 29/11/12 – This morning we managed to convince the captain to put some pants on just as the boatload of other travellers was heading out to the ship. He agreed that “yes, image is important for a captain” and got dressed as the people started boarding. Of the 19 people who were onboard for the journey to Colombia, 13 were either Australian or currently residing in Australia! Another guy turned up late on a BMW 650 and boarded the boat – so it was nice to have a fellow rider on board. After Majo collected payments and passports (which, with no explanation, we wouldn’t see again for 5 days), we sailed for an hour out to a pristine island similar to those usually seen on television travel shows. We relaxed and went snorkelling on a nearby shipwreck where I got to test my freediving skills. We then spent the evening relaxing and playing card games with the group. It was at this time that we realised the captain (about 60 years old) was actually in a relationship with Majo (about 20 years old) as they shared a cabin and he kept pinching her on the bum. Later on they were full-on kissing which was really creepy; it was like a slow-motion car crash where you wanted to look away but couldn’t. Kenz and I ended up sharing a cabin with another Australian girl and 2 Swedish girls. I was happy to be sharing with 4 girls as I thought the room wouldn’t smell bad by the end of 4 days. I was wrong.

We spent the next 2 days island hopping amongst some beautiful small islands (most were smaller than a cricket ground), relaxing, swimming, playing cards and drinking rum.

On the 4th night we started the true unprotected crossing from Panama to Colombia through the open ocean; it was a tedious 30 hours of banging and crashing through big waves. Kenz and I each took a sea sickness tablet which knocked us out for a solid 12 hours, and we spent the rest of the time trying to sleep and hoping the voyage would be over soon. They were taking a few waves over the front of the boat and every time I heard a bang or crash I would think that the bikes had just fallen overboard. It was hard to sleep as the porthole window above me would be out of the water in-between waves and letting light in, and then it would go dark as it went underwater as the boat went through a wave. It was like being in a slow-motion nightclub where you were already hung over and feeling like power-spewing. I barely saw Kenz for the crossing as I preferred to be below deck in the cabin where the boat didn’t move as much; and she preferred to be midship with the wind on her face. She also fell down the steps on the second night and hurt her tailbone (I thought she had broken her back!) which made her not want to navigate the stairs regularly. At midnight on Sunday we pulled into the harbour of the city of Cartagena on the Northern Colombian coast, much to the relief of all on board.

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20th December 2012

Thanks for the adventure
Great writing, photos and memories of past adventures. Hope to see you both in Tazzy!
18th April 2013

Crossing the Darién Gap
Here is another account of crossing the Darien Gap: That documentary was filmed on March 2013. Happy travels!

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