Tag Archive for 'natural wonders'

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.

Merry Christmas from Mexico!

Well, it’s been a long time, and a lot of things have happened, but first of all, Merry Christmas from San Cristóbal de las Casas.

So, let’s see, on the 15th, after two days of beautiful relaxation on the beach at Puerto Escondido, we packed up all of our things in the Osa Mariposa and headed down to the bus station where we packed our bikes into the storage hold of a coach bus bound for Salina Cruz. As this was our first time putting the bikes on a bus, we were a little concerned about how it would go, but the baggage professionals of the Omnibus Cristobal Colon company had no worries. A’s bike went in first, chain up, and then a’s bike laid down on top of it, facing the other way. We loaded the bikes ourselves and then packed the bags in around them, locking the frames and wheels together just out of precaution. Of course, they were in the rear compartment that wasn’t opened the whole way to our destination, 5 hours and 250km of twisting, turning, hilly coast road, so of course the bikes arrived safely, as did we (OCC wouldn’t have it any other way, trust us).

However, the nauseating bus ride gave Aran’s tummy bugs a chance to knock her out for a while, so we spent two days in a HORRIBLE hotel room in Salina Cruz (there are nicer prison cells) while she shivered with a fever and got to know the bathroom way too well. To make up for lost time and allow a to reach full strength, we took another bus, this time a local along the flat roads through Mexico’s wind farm (it’s windy there) to the state of Chiapas and the city of Arriaga.

Upon arrival, after changing our first flat (A’s front) we rode into town to look for hotels. On our way around the zócalo, we asked a local if he knew of any hotels in town, and he offered to walk us to the cheap hotels. We chatted a bit in the few blocks, and when we were standing in the street between the two rather run down looking hotels, our “friend” told us to wait there while he went to check prices for us. Hmm, we thought, is he helping us or himself, hoping to take a cut perhaps? The $250 (MXN) he quoted us seemed a little steep after our stay in the prison cell for $200/night, and he offered to check the one across the street. While he was in there, a helpful Arriagan stopped by us on a bicycle and let us know that a new hotel had opened up that was quite nice and reasonably priced. Since the second hotel was (predictably) also “$250″, we asked our “friend” to take us over to Hotel Chiapas. When he went to check the price there, it was only $215, and who’s ever heard of a hotel for $215 pesos? However, he pointed out that the other hotels were cheaper, as they were only $180, and was ready to take us back. “Wait, what? You mean they’re $250, right?” “Oh yeah, $250, so this one is cheaper, I’ll take care of the money while you guys get the bikes inside.” So, not wanting to cause a fuss, and seeing that Hotel Chiapas was far nicer than the other two, A handed him $220 and we dragged the bikes through the lobby into the courtyard. Our friend appeared with the $5 change, took care of checking us in, and then helped carry some bags to the room, which turned out to be the nicest we’ve seen in Mexico. Just for kicks, we checked the price as we left for dinner, expecting that our buddy had indeed swindled us out of a few pesos. It turns out, the room actually did cost $215, and since it was a welcome change from the hole in Salina Cruz, we felt pretty good about the outcome. We also didn’t feel too chagrinned that we had given the guy $20 pesos extra when he asked for a little change for a soda in exchange for his help. We’re still not sure if he forgot his game after the first two hotels, or if he realized how very likable we are, or was afraid we’d catch him because the prices were posted on the wall. All told, it’s a good story, and the hotel was worth the extra pesos. (Sorry, we didn’t think to take pictures of the nicest hotel, even after the worst one!)

After some pastor tacos with a gibbering old man, a mirimba concert and the impressively friendly atmosphere of the Arriaga zocalo, and a good night sleep, we loaded up the bikes and headed out on the free road toward Tuxtla. In Mexico, there are two types of Federal funded roads, much like US Interstates and US routes. The interstates here, called autopistas or super carreterras, are often toll roads, and although they have lots more traffic, they all have big wide shoulders where you can bike without trouble. These roads are shaped and graded for heavy truck traffic with gentle curves and 6% grade max, and they don’t go through any little towns. Of course, the free roads are opposite on all of the counts mentioned. Have a look at the roads out of Arriaga for a comparison.

First, upon entering the Reserva de la Biosfera La Sepultura, we came across a pretty little stream full of whahooing locals, so we took a rest in the shade to take some pictures. Turns out it was a church group from Arriaga, and a precosious teenage girl came to say hi. Pretty soon, the whole group ventured up to the road to meet us. They invited us under the bridge to see the waterfall, and we witnessed a few brave men jumping into the pool at the bottom while we talked. They invited us for fish soup, but unfortunately we felt the afternoon and the climb weighing us down, so we took a raincheck. On up the road, the grade hit 13 or 15% (that’s steep) while the wind gusted to 40-50mph making the riding dicey. We got over the hump at 800 meters (we started from sea level) not long before dark, and began to look for a place to camp that was out of the wind. Thankfully, the police in Tierra y Libertad were happy to have us camp out behind their station, and even urged us to move closer to the building to stay out of the wind.

Monday, we rode about 65 kilometers, finding our way to a campsite down by the beach on a river under the road a bit before sunset. Awakened from time to time by horses in the night, and harassed by the barbed plant life, we didn’t have our best night ever, but we were rested enough the next day to take the toll road the whole way through Tuxtla Gutierrez to a dirty hotel in Chiapa de Corzo. There, we took a day off to tour the Sumidero Canyon, an impressive cleft in the earth that can be seen by boat. Unfortunately for the world, the canyon is not being protected well by Mexican authorities — the air is permanently hazy because it is full of exhaust from big, powerful tour boats, and the water is covered with floating plastic bottles. But, if you manage to focus on the more natural surroundings, you get to see crocodiles, monkeys, pelicans, cool plant life, and some really impressive rocks!

From Chiapa de Corzo, all that was left was a 1700 meter climb over 50 km to arrive in San Cristóbal de las Casas. It took us a day and a half on the toll road, but we came right up, and are settled in a mostly french speaking hostel for a few more days. We spent Christmas Eve with local french and spanish bike mechanics at a non-traditional party involving a piñata and a machete, and skin tight leopard print. There are lots of foreigners living in San Cristóbal, which accounts for the belgian chocolatier, french bakeries, and gourmet cheese shops. But not for the bagel cafe. What? There’s also plenty of mexican flavor, as the fireworks haven’t stopped for 3 days. Also, the indigenous culture is more prevalent here, although in the city most of it is just aggressively hawking kitsch. It is really cool to hear indigenous languages in the streets, though. We had a great Christmas. We stuffed some wool socks with oranges, pistachios, and belgian chocolates. We skyped with our families. We miss all of you enormously, and wish we could simultaneously enjoy our amazing adventures and be in the company of everyone we love. We’ll be here, though, if anyone wants to visit. Just tell us a time or a place, and we’ll tell you the other one.