Tag Archive for 'cities'

Not biking in Panama is better than biking in Panama

Kilometers this post: 521km pedalled, 339km bus, 16.1km taxis, 40.5km boats

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Once across the questionable bridge at the Costa Rican border, we ventured forward into our final country in Central America to find it pretty different from all the others. Our impression of Panama is in fact a lot like our impression of that border crossing: a questionable, somewhat puzzling bridge between two worlds. Some things we’ve noticed and/or read: There is an overwhelming number of supermarkets, very often run by folks of Chinese backgrounds. On the shelves of said supermarkets are many, many things processed, packaged, and imported from other countries. We could not figure out what Panama produces… We passed a few banana and pineapple plantations, and some of the canned goods we picked up off the shelves were Panamanian, but so much of what is here seems to come from somewhere else. There are a few areas of the country with strong concentrations of indigenous people, (these have been some of the highlights), and large expanses of land much less populated than anything else we’ve seen in Central America. There are very few small towns with central markets or church squares (or any center at all, really). Of course, the most densely populated area is around Panama City and along the canal, where there is remarkable urban sprawl as we know it in the USA, complete with large strip malls, car dealerships, and US fast food chains.

But we’ve seen some striking natural beauty as well as some awe-inspiring feats of engineering, and we’re glad to have visited. Riding in the northwest was full of very (very!) steep rolling hills through deep green jungle spotted with rural communities, many of them of the indigenous Ngobe-Buglé. We took a couple of days to visit the islands in the archipelago of Bocas del Toro province. We took a snorkeling trip that visited the most idyllic beach either of us have seen. Yes, islands with flawless, soft white sand and bright blue-green water and statuesque palm trees do exist.

After lazing on the islands, we thought it was about time to bike up a GIANT hill. So, we spent a full day grinding out 36km (that ain’t much) up and over the continental divide. We appreciated the spectacular views during our breaks from the 15% grades before we biked into the clouds and it started pouring rain. At the top (which wasn’t the real top, we later learned) we arrived at a dam with a visitors’ center, where we collapsed wet and exhausted on the porch, thanks to a fella who said, yes we could stay but don’t tell his boss. Next day, legs rested, we continued up and just over the real top for, yes, another day off the bike. A thank you here to Aran’s bro, Kieran, who put us up for two nights in the Lost and Found Hostel, a lodge at the top of the divide way up in the cloud forest. Yes, we finally got to hang out in a cloud forest! (After trying and failing to do so in Nicaragua and Costa Rica.) We spent a day hiking around in the cool, misty jungle, exploring a mountain river, and watching in fascination as the view from the lodge porch went from wild, expansive mountains to white sheet of fog, and back again in a matter of minutes. We also saw some very neat birds and bugs.

Then, down we rolled to the Pacific coast once again, taking a detour to the city of David where we got some overdue replacement shifter cables for a’s bike. We hung out for a day in a very purple hostel, where we met and exchanged stories with Angela and Philipp, a pair of bike tourists from Germany. Heading east toward Panama city, a biker has basically one choice: the Panamerican highway. We had heard from many cyclists that the road was a long slog with not much besides a gas station here and a supermarket there, and so we’d considered for several months taking a bus to Panama city to use the time, energy, and dollars in Colombia where we might get more out of them. But, we thought, we should check out this Panamerican thing for ourselves before we decide to skip out. Our day began (yes, ok, slightly later than it should have) in the brutal heat. We took a break in the shade of some trees and two in the shade of large “servicentros.” Finally, in the late afternoon it broke with a torrential downpour, the heaviest rain that either of us has ever been out in. Great relief at first. Then less fun when we couldn’t see the road in front of us. Aran got a flat tire with no shelter in sight. We changed it and rode several more kilometers before coming to another gas station with an hospedaje behind it, where we paid too much for a hygienically questionable room so we could get dry. In the morning, we woke up covered in tiny mite-like bugs and each of us had another flat tire. Let’s call that morning a low. Worried the bugs were lice, we changed our tires and headed for the nearest town (off the highway a few kms and up a giant hill.) Andrew got another flat. There are an impressive number of exploded truck tires on the Panamerican Highway that leave tiny shreds of metal for bikers to enjoy. In the town of Tolé we visited a pharmacy and checked into another hospedaje. Having taken a deep breath and considered our options, we decided that yes, a bus would be fine.

Click for a bigger view of the Panamarama:

And the next day, we found ourselves in Panama City! Not at all sorry to have missed the countless other inevitable flat tires and disgustingly hot hours on the Panamericana passing greenness interspersed with sprawl, we spent two days gaping at the canal. Simply amazing. The scale of the project and of its current use is mind-blowing. We were a bit disappointed with the presentation of information in the museums (giant, dry history text books plastered to walls,) but spent a lot of time watching the Panamax boats going through the locks. This was a strange physical experience akin to growing up in the Catskills and one day coming face-to-face with the Grand Canyon, thought Aran.

We took a long bike ride (without bags! Weeeee!) to visit the canal further afield from the city, and to check out a national park that holds the record for species of birds spotted in 24 hours (525). We only spotted toucans and woodpeckers, but the views of the canal were again fascinating. We biked out to the middle of the Centennial bridge (there’s no tourism here, just a lot of fast traffic) and had some great views of the Gaillard Cut and waved to the teeny tiny crew members on the giant boats below.

Then, off we biked to the north side of the isthmus again to meet our Columbia-bound sailboat in the tiny town of Portobelo, which is home to four (and counting) Chinese supermarkets. Here we are. Our last day in Central America. We are ready, even hungry, for the wider open spaces and cool mountains of South America.