For some reason I don’t hold much affection or affinity with the Caribbean. My hot and sticky slog up through Belize back in September 2011 had me bounce disapointedly off what I’ve experienced as a slightly aggressive culture and heavy atmosphere. Admittedly I am not a beach person and I don’t care much for warmer climates, so perhaps I was being naive by hoping that the Costa Rican and Panamanian Caribbean would be any different. Having really and quite surprisingly enjoyed the tourist paradise of the Nicoya Peninsula I just couldn’t resist the pull of wonder at what lay on the other side of the giant isthmus that is Costa Rica and Panama. I imagined bright blue seas, incredible wildlife and picturesque traverses of the highlands. I got a bit of these but they didn’t push my buttons as they undoubtedly would have had I been fresh to the road. Instead this Caribbean leg turned out to be a tale of a disintegrating rear wheel and beautiful singing children.
I’ll get the negative part of this ride out-of-the-way and not moan about it anymore… I’ve been suffering at least one and often two broken spokes in my rear wheel every day (that’s EVERY effing DAY). This has been a menace to say the least and I’ve heard possibly the result of a dud batch of Sapims supposedly finest spokes. Fortunately I kept a whole load of the old spokes I replaced when rebuilding the wheel myself in Oaxaca Mexico and have been able to continue riding. The Rohloff rear hub I ride makes changing spokes a relatively painless process and after the nth time quite quick. The hub unfortunately also means that the spokes threaded in that wheel are slightly shorter than the usual and thus not locally available in Central America, so I’m feeling glad to have some saved. As a consequence Shermy has spent a fair bit of time turned on her head and me an unenviable period vigorously refilling her back wheel with air. This wasn’t such a chore until my fancy new Lezyne pump broke and I resorted to the old one that I thankfully had continued to carry (hording has served me well with this issue). But I’ve learnt not to get upset about these things and a broken spoke actually would lead to one of the most enchanting experiences of the leg.
Last time I spewed onto these pages I was wallowing in the shadow of Volcan Arenal up in the Tilaran range of Costa Rica. Route options are limited from here down to the Carribean coast but there are still choices. I discovered this when the ride from Fortuna down to Puerto Limon on the east coast was fleshed out by a missed turn that thankfully directed me up and over a rather large and unnecessary hill into Ciudad Quesada (aka San Carlos). As is often the case when navigating by ITMB maps, reality didn’t reflect what the paper told me to expect. But it was welcome as the climbing was a joy and presented the opportunity to venture through real Costa Rican towns and cities, where tourists seldom venture and never congregate. I was congratulated on my detour by overwhelming support in the form of car honks and small acts of personal kindness, such as the old man that staggered out of his home with a jug of water to help quench the needs of this sweaty gringo in obscenely tight shorts. The atmosphere was really positive and the undulating road quite enjoyable until the flatness started on my second day (starting out of La Virgen). From there I’d soon joined the main highway from San Jose down to the coast and the riding was as dull as the miles were easy.
Day three started out with a welcome release from a ‘Gringo Zoo’ hotel in Siquirres (fun fact; it’s population is 59,000) and evolved into a dusty battle with container traffic. I bypassed the town of Puerto Limon, settling down among rustling leaves and sinister collections of rubbish (or ‘trash’ as I’ve annoying come to refer to it) to lunch under a tree in Westfalia. The afternoons riding would undoubtedly prove a joy to the majority of Sunday riders, holding obvious charms: To the left waves gently crept up onto creamy sand. Punctuation’s of inlets, exuberant children and tree debris rhythmically harmonising with small clusters of stilted wooden buildings. On the right generally lurched a thick wall of junglish forest, small plots of farmed land and a hue of thick heated microclimate. The problem for me came down the middle; straight and flat paved road… the epitome of boredom. Out of the hills and into the heat, away from lush mountain smells and freshness and back to dull roads and picture postcard monotony. This sentiment followed me into an ill-advised day off in beachy Cahuita and the unsurprising revelation that there is good reason tourist development flocked to the Pacific side of Costa Rica.
There is always a little flutter of nerves that accompany me across borders and the entry into Panama would be no different. As always the crossing would be seamless and easy but it is not this landmark moment that took centre stage in my diary that evening. That corner of Costa Rica is fascinating for the fact that you’ve probably eaten a banana or two that started it’s journey to your digestive system nurtured inside a blue plastic bag here; one among thousands of little money packets that color the huge banana plantations of the region. The miles up to and following the border post at Sixaola were essentially service road for the banana processing plants of large company’s such as Del Monte and Chiquita. The global cash of these mighty corporations appear to have filtered down to their workforce in the construction of dingy and utilitarian little villages. But despite the intrigue of watching banana harvest, it was not the Banana Republic that captured my thoughts that day.
Costa Rica’s parting shot came in the form of 11-year-old Rey, a mild-mannered little kid with a penchant for gangster hand signs and poses. I dropped into his world having stopped at his mothers tienda to rid myself of the Costa RIcan coins I’d accrued. Those coins bought me an ice-cold Coke, a two-way exploration of the Spanglish language and a beautiful little rendition of a song little Rey sings in church (where I presume he refrains from gang style posturing). “Open my eyes. open my eyes. So I can see you”. Complete with hand actions and nervous quivering eyelashes, my new buddy made quite an impression. Unwittingly this young lad managed to transform the slightly grumpy and travel fatigued chap that pulled into the store into a somewhat rejuvenated and optimistic young cyclist who cycled away into Panama sporting an inane grin and even more convinced of the healing powers of Coke.
Panama bought some fun riding but my mood once again had fallen flat. The road is a good one, in fine condition and snaking enthusiastically up, down, to and from sea views of the popular Bocas del Toro Archipelago. I know I’m feeling sluggish when after having coffee with breakfast I find myself shamelessly popping across the street to gorge on an early morning Pepsi (my name is Nathan and I have a problem). I’d only had a day off two days previous but there was nothing in my tank. Just four and a half labored miles into the day and I felt the now all too familiar lurch of a spoke popping. The sun was especially hot on this morning and my jersey was completely saturated and literally dripping with sweat by the time I’d pushed up the remainder of the hill that had slain my wheel and found salvation under a tree outside of a ramshackle wooden house. I flipped Shermy and got to work. As is the trend, people appeared and the questions started, but these people were kind and soon retired to let me work. Then they appeared, the Panamanian Supremes. Three little girls giggled their way out of the house like Nutcracker angels. Two were eight years of age and the youngest only six. Led by their cheeky orchestrater Nigellina, these girls delighted in my presence and before long were singing song after song. Busting stupid little dances and amusing them with my accent it was soon evident that positive energy was flowing both ways in this little exchange. By the time Shermy was on her feet again we were all giggling and the girls taking joy from their new toy… the tube I’d just had the valve blow out on. Morale can find the most unexpected of boosts.
My mood remained high for the rest of the day and despite a second spoke going I still had a couple of those ‘shit am I really here and doing this‘ moments, those remarkable little flashes where it dawns on me how lucky I am and what is driving me to travel. So it was a somewhat more approachable cyclist that settled down in Chirique Grande that evening. The town had a warmer more latino feel that I find infinitely more welcoming than the Caribbean attitude and I felt at home again. A day of climbing lay ahead so I tweaked the truing on my back wheel and looked forward with baited anticipation for the thrill of the climb and the cloaked relief of leaving the Caribbean.