What are my thought processes when choosing which route to take? The principle questions include those such as: Where am I going? What kind of riding am I after? What is the weather doing? etc etc. One stipulation that is always high up on the route finding tick list is whether it avoids highways, in particular the dreaded Pan American highway. At points avoiding the Pan Am has been impossible but until Panama I’d done a pretty effective job of doing so. That changed in Panama… in a big way!
As readers of my last post will be aware, I crossed into Panama in the north-west corner at Sixaola / Guabito and cycled down the Carribean coast to Chiriqui Grande. You are about to find out how I subsequently climbed over the Central Mountains to join the Pan American Highway on the Pacific side. The highway then grabbed hold and dragged me kicking and screaming down as far as possible, to Yaviza, the edge of the famous Darien Gap and only a few impenetrable miles from Colombia. Of the 620 or so miles I put into riding Panama, about 480 of them were on the Pan American Highway. On the surface this is a staggering turn around from my usual riding style but in reality there is little practical option. As the North American continent pinches down into Panama, the drip on the end of one colossal nose, the road system gets funnelled down to essentially just one. Unfortunately so does the traffic. To my mind the Pan Am in Panama is like the end thread of a huge ball of wool, you need to find it to unravel the thing but in your heart you just want to dive in a pull that ball apart. I cycled from Deadhorse up in the Arctic Circle, Alaska, near the start of the VeloFreedom yarn and was irrepressibly curious as to what lay at the other end in the Darien.
But before having the opportunity to tame that wretched highway, I’d have to cross a mountain range and the width of an entire country. Sounds more impressive than it actually is, although a tiring one, there is in actual fact only one day of riding between the Caribbean Sea and the Pacific Ocean. A day that I had been looking forward to ever since I checked out the route profile; a huge shock of altitude on an otherwise lowland graph. That kind of spike is like a red rag to a bull; the chance of a cooler climate, quickly changing mountain scenery, a physical challenge and the landscapes that I adore. To my mind the day over the mountains was to be the jewel in the crown of Panamanian riding. After a clutch of spoke breakages in the rear wheel I rolled out of Chiriqui Grande a heady bundle of nerves for the condition of my bicycle and anticipation for the joy of climbing… finally I was going to get high again, it had been too long.
I have hauled the Shermster over countless mountain ranges since we headed north out of Anchorage back in May 2010, so we are more than familiar with the ways of the land. As the Caribbean retreated from our backs the terrain began to bump and then bulge in ever increasing creases until the topography exploded into a myriad of gorgeous tree painted mountains. The road slalomed its way around sheer slopes, through tidy little valleys until working itself up into a series of broad sweeping switchbacks. As we wound up and up the grey clouds and rain came down to meet us and much of the ‘crux’ ascent was spent welcoming blissfully cool showers. The sun slowly began to return allowing me to strip and dry over lunch above Lago Fortuna before a roller coaster descent to the lake itself. My map suggested an easy descent down to the Pacific lowlands from here but not for the first time, it lied. From the lake a steep ascent finally defeated another back spoke and I found myself sidelined again. But the break was a blessing, dropping me into conversation with two biologists out tracking the nesting habits of a rare green Bee found only in this small area of Panama and Costa Rica. As we talked the grey clouds gathered and I became cold… what a joy it is to be cold in Central America!
Weather systems have come to fascinate me, an interest undoubtedly bought on by the privilege of living outside for the last few years. I cycled through a rainy season and have endured all manner of temperatures and surprises on this trip. Large bodies of water and mountains can create some quite surprising meteorological effects so imagine the excitement that goes along with the possibilities of two vast bodies of water separated by just a thin strip of low mountains. At the point where my road toppled down and the Pacific Ocean came into view the weather changed as quickly as a film cut. At this specific point, presumably where air coming off the Pacific meets that which has moved over the mountains, a great bank of grey cloud stopped and a vast pure blue sky started. The change was startling and accompanied by some viciously whipping winds (highlighting certain vulnerabilities of bikes with framebags). Quite beautiful.
On the way down I stopped at the ‘Lost & Found’ hostel for the night. I wish I never had… it was hell. I can see why people like it as it’s in a great spot perched atop a ten minute hike up from the road. I left my bike with a family at the base of the hike and strolled up for the night just out of intrigue. Turned out I walked into a capitalist Gringo enclave. Everyone spoke English, everything was a loosely cloaked way of getting more money out of you and nobody seemed to be able to tell me any firm way in which the operation beneficially integrates with local communities and causes. A lot is said by the fact that one of the biggest buildings in the complex is the bar. Accordingly I was woken up at various ungodly hours of the night by drunk ‘kids’ trying to mount their bunk and was unable to enjoy my breakfast in the morning for the pestering of a drunk guy who had yet to go to bed. The whole place reminded me of the beach community in the book (and film) ‘The Beach’ an idealistic conglomeration of hedonist and ultimately selfish idiots and an inherently floored idea. An interesting experiment in political philosophy though! God I sound old!!!
After a sleepless night the ideal tonic is a picturesque spin downhill. The less than ideal by-product was a descent into the hot clutches of a traffic filled, narrow and shoulderless highway. At the Pan Am junction I made a rookie mistake, I went into a grocery store thirsty and hot. I came out with a huge jug of sickly sweet juice that obviously I had to drink in its entirety Becoming acquainted with a busy road when it’s stiflingly hot and you’ve just made yourself feel like a great sloshing water balloon is not fun… it’s downright horrible. But I didn’t have to endure it for long as I found myself ‘blessed’ with another little gift from the gods of broken spokes. Thankfully from here things got better and I have to admit enjoying some of the riding over to Santiago for despite the heat and pulses of traffic the road undulated more than I expected and at times felt quite remote. This would all change after Santiago when things flattened out and things took on a much more efficient four lane large shoulder complexion.
When I look back on a leg of riding it is usually fairly clear how much it had to offer from the number and nature of photographs I took. The highway stretch from where I left the mountains all the way into Panama City is remarkable in that I hardly took any photos and have very little recollection of what I passed on route. On these roads I find myself pretty intensely focused on the road, trying to avoid glass, bits of old tire and anything else that could cause punctures or fling me off into the thunder of passing traffic. What photos I do have are of my camp spots and self portraits. I cycled the whole of Panama solo and without a day off and got well back into the rhythms and mindset of solo touring. When I look at these photos they serve to reinforce what solo bicycle touring really is; a collection of bike rides sewn together with periods of solitary thought by the thread of survival. Things are never as lonely inside the tourists head as it may look from a passing air-conditioned car or when he’s slumped on dusty ground in a shady corner, perhaps cradling a cup of tea and staring intently at the ever present ants hankering after his dropped crumbs. These moments are a big reason why us soloists do what we do. Alastair Humphreys goes a long way summing these up in his outstanding self-edited, self-proofread and self-published work ‘There Are Other Rivers’:
I take a photograph of myself resting in a bus shelter. It’s a photo that captures my youth. The days and years alone on the road. The thousands of miles, defining my life. Thousands of brief rests in shaded bus shelters like this one. I know that I will never live days quite like those again. I am tired but smiling… It’s a self-portrait: I am alone. Nobody else sees this moment. It’s just me and my thoughts out on the road, where every new horizon is filled with promise.
(Please download this book and contribute to Alastair’s efforts. www.alastairhumphreys.com)
I’ve already mentioned traffic on the Pan American highway, what I haven’t yet divulged is that I just happened to be heading towards Panama City on the days of heaviest traffic in the entire year. It was Carnival weekend, which also spreads through much of the following week. This is when people flee to beaches or get their party on in the town centres. The increase in traffic doesn’t bother me as traffic is traffic and all you can do when cycling with it is surrender to its trust and try zoning it out. What did bother me was the fact that all the cheap rooms in the towns were booked up and the town centres cordoned off so people could apparently get wasted, listen to extremely loud and often terrible music and get blasted by huge water cannons. It’s a very conspicuous and vulnerable feeling being the only white guy around, wearing lycra and riding a conspicuously loaded bike through dense throngs of very drunk and lively youth. I feared the antics of those kids who will do anything to impress their friends and have a story to tell: “Remember that time you pushed that gringo off his bike and repeatedly stamped on his head?!?”. My fear came to something when I got a lot of abuse in Penonome and had a lady smash a beer can into my face, covering me with nasty Atlas (thankfully she was so fat that her heart can’t have more than about 7 months left in it anyway). This wasn’t the norm for Panama by any stretch, the general sober populous have been lovely, just as I’ve found everywhere I’ve cycled.
I experienced an amusing episode a couple of hours out of Santiago when a motorcyclist sporting cargo boxes pulled up alongside. I was listening to music and didn’t notice at first. When I turned my head I first thought it was a traffic cop, an illusion quickly dispelled by the Union Jack sticker on his front fender and the hilariously wide red face that grinned infectiously from inside his open-faced helmet. “Awright mate. Is this the way to David?” he sprang in an obviously northern English accent. “Nah mate. You’re going to Panama City” I replied. “Oh… cheers. Have a good one“. And off he sped, reappearing a minute later heading down the opposite carriageway, still grinning. That was the complete exchange and it made me laugh out loud for a long time. I was tickled by the particular Britishness of it, the general appearance of this chap and just the fact that as I mentioned before, there is only this one road through Panama and he had managed to go the wrong way down it! Like so often on the road, I was left to fill in his story myself.
Riding into Panama City involved the usual confusion of entering a city with no idea where I’m trying to go and no decent map to help me on that aimless quest. It was a relief to have crossed the Bridge of the Americas over the Panama Canal as the road is narrow and traffic heavy, not the best combination when penned in by a concrete barrier. It wasn’t as bad as I’d been made to think, the worst thing being the lack of time to lift your head and take in what I presume to be a great view. By some quirk of fate I ended up sitting on a shaded curb in Casco Viejo, the old part of town. There I was trying to work out where the hell I was when this fella strolled by who had something rather familiar about him. He clearly thought the same of me, so much so that a minute later he returned with a huge grin, the kind that wouldn’t look out of place beaming from inside a motorcycle helmet! Strange but the kind of coincidence I’ve become accustomed to on the road. He bought me breakfast revealed that he’d ridden down from San Francisco and took me to a decent place to stay. Sometimes a lack of direction brings great prizes as his Liverpudlian humour had me chuckling for a while.
Panama City could keep me for just one night before my compass directed me out the other side, on course for the Darien. There is so much broadcast in travelling circles about the lawlessness and danger of the Darien and this is true if you’re talking in regards to the Darien Gap; an area of thick jungle that smothers the border between Panama and Colombia, houses all manner of potentially deadly creatures including many humans who operate outside of the law and puts a 150km break in the otherwise continuous Pan American Highway. Although curiosity killed the cat, I just had to get myself down there and see what it was all about. This had bought laughter and sneers from folk in Panama City with the consensus being that the military wouldn’t let me down the road without a permission letter from the Police and if they did it was far too dangerous to go all the way to Yavisa, the end of the road. I was told to expect eight military check-points and certain malaria.
How many times have I been told a road is too dangerous to ride or an area to dangerous to visit? More than I care to remember, in parts of Mexico and Guatemala every town and village informed me that the next one along the road was too dangerous to go through… I’m still here. And surprise surprise… I made it down to Yaviza, met a number of kind and interested people and sensed no hint of danger. I think people who don’t take the time to explore themselves can be prone to paint an entire region with a brush that only really applies to very specific areas. There were military check points, all of which were manned by light-hearted and curious soldiers. They’d take all my details and details of my agenda and let me pass. This happened just three times and on each occasion I had a lot of fun talking with them.
It took just two and a half days to complete the 185 miles to Yaviza from Panama City. It was fun, even if not especially memorable riding. The route starts in busy urbanity until popping out through Pacora where the narrow but decently paved road veers north-east before turning south through the dramatic Lago Bayano region, the home of the Kuna people. From here things are straight, mildly undulating and very quick, with a steady supply of villages to get that needed Coke fix. The first military check point came just after entry into Darien province and shortly after that the condition of the road deteriorated into rough unpaved pot-hole strewn excitement (just what you need when spokes are snapping left right and centre). That only lasted ten miles or though it would periodically reappear. At the second military check point I discovered I’d lost my Ipod. I never lose things and hadn’t yet on the tour. With music my connection to people and places I’ve left behind, this was an absolute disaster to me. I rode back four miles to a tienda I’d stopped at but there was no sign, it had gone. Although upsetting I had to get over it and took this as a reminder of the values I’d come to appreciate on the road, namely the lack importance one should hold to material items (unless it’s you bike or tent of course).
By the last 20 miles before Yaviza the road had started winding invitingly through jungleish vegetation and the traffic had been reduced to the occasional bus or taxi… this really was the end of the road. A Sunday, I rode into a Yaviza bustling with busy cantinas and boisterous in the way that latin America gets on the Sabbath. The Pan American highway turns into a path and the town spreads out from there with higgledy piggledy buildings and tight roads more like pathways. Although happy to be locked up in my air-conditioned hotel, I took to liking the energy of the place and just couldn’t get my mind over the fact that these people lived here, at this juncture of South and Central America. A place that the military tell me few cycle tourists go (although I can’t be sure of this) and a town that is hard to reach without a bicycle. Apparently it was easy for me to get down there because it was obvious to everyone what I was doing. My understanding is that permissions or guides are needed to get permission to travel here by car or as a foreigner by bus. I discovered this to be true when the only other tourist on the bus I took back to Panama City was grilled intensely at the military check point on the Darien province border. He was a photographer and he had crept through without permission. Nothing happened to him but it just made me think that maybe there is something to the things I’d been told and maybe I have been right three years ago when I figured travelling by bicycle would afford me freedoms other forms of transport don’t.
When my bus passed through the final military checkpoint of the Darien I was given a very pleasant surprise. They had found my Ipod and because they knew my name and details of my itinerary, had kept hold of it ready for my return. That’s how aggressive a place the Darien is!