Tag Archive for 'roadkill'

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.

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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.

Border crossings and lots of new pals

Kilometers this post: 541

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We’ve crossed three borders since last we posted, and have lots of stories and impressions to share. We spent our last days in Guatemala back down in banana-growing country, riding through the south-eastern corner at a lower, hotter altitude. During our last few days, we had the good fortune to run into several bike tourists. At the same time! Luis from Mexico City is taking a year to ride South (see his blog at vapalsur.com), and we hope to meet up with him again down the road, since we got along like peanut butter and bananas. Barbara and Achim from Germany arrived on the scene as we were hanging out with Luis, and we all rode together for a very little while. Chatting with these folks in the shade, though, inspired some ongoing musings about how many bike tourists there are around us at any given point, and how many different ways there are to do a trip like this. Some riders stay on dirt roads 100% of the time, some stick to pavement. Some ride only mountains, others only flats, and still others take a bus any time there’s a climb. There are those who ride over 100km every day, and those who average more like 40km, and everything in between. We may still be in the process of trying out different styles to find one that fits, or maybe our style is simply to change it up a lot. In any case, we’ve been through a lot of phases.

El Salvador was our HOT phase. We stayed along the coast road almost the whole way through, which meant lots of mangoes collected by the side of the road, ocean views and swims, and plenty of breaks in the shade to escape the 100 degree afternoons. So many people, (bikers, backpackers, locals, friends of all kinds) had told us to avoid El Salvador altogether, but we’re very glad we didn’t. The people we met were enthusiastic and friendly, and never shy to say exactly what they wanted to us. This made for some pretty fun interactions. One guy asked us how to report a crime in the US. Another told us a story about how he almost got a ticket for peeing against a building in the US but got off with a warning when he explained that he didn’t know because in El Salvador, cops don’t pay attention to that! A woman munching a delicious corn fritter-like thing broke off pieces and handed them to us when we asked what it was she was eating. When we were eating a (giant) watermelon in the shade, a man pulled over in his car and handed us a book that turned out to be about the philosophy of the gnostics and said it was “for our journey.” We left that one behind. But still, it was given with such kindness. Of course, some of the young dudes who felt they could say whatever they wanted to Aran grew extremely tiresome, but they were generally quickly forgotten.

Seven days of riding later we were at the Honduran border, which was the most hectic we’ve experienced, but we hit it early in the day, so we weren’t too tired to deal with the crowds, lines, money changers, folks who wanted to fill out our forms for us, etc. We then had our hottest and longest day yet, making our way along the Bay of Fonseca to Choluteca, where there is a terrific French-Canadian named Simon, who is a former bike tourist working for an NGO, and has opened his house to cyclists passing through. We overlapped at Simon’s house with Sarah and Geoff from England, who are great fun, and we spent an extra day resting in Choluteca, swapping notes and stories, cooking, patching tubes and planning our next leg. We headed out of Choluteca, ready and eager for Nicaragua, but needed to make one last stop at a store for some sun block. It was one of those lucky stops. While Aran was inside the store, Andrew struck up a conversation with a Honduran who was very curious about our bikes and our trip. We told him we were heading to the northern border crossing, and he told us he had a vacation home along our road, and explained exactly how to find his house. We had gotten a late start and it was a long climb, so when we arrived at Ramón’s house it was late enough to call it a day, and of course he was thrilled to invite us to camp! We spent an excellent evening walking around to look at the sunset, drinking some wine, and talking and talking until bedtime. It felt great to speak so much Spanish at once, when so many of our recent interactions had been a bit short and superficial. In the morning, after playing on his swingset, Ramón sent us on our way with a good breakfast and a recommendation for a bakery to try down the road.

If the Honduran border was overwhelming, the Nicaraguan border was the opposite. The border officials were relaxed and patient, and glad to have some people to talk to. There were no truckers, no lines of impatient people, and only one very helpful guy who took us to someone who could change our money at a reasonable rate. We are enjoying the hills of Nicaragua, as well as the approachable, relaxed culture. No one is working this week because of Semana Santa (holy week), which means tons of people are sitting on their porches or down by the rivers in large (often drunk) gatherings, so we get lots of loud, collective hellos. One of these groups, a family, yelled to us to come join them by the river. We did, of course. We swam with the kids, and the adults offered us a fermented corn drink that tasted a lot like salad dressing and burned a little. As we were getting back on our bikes, the police pulled up and piled out of a pickup truck with billy-clubs and submachine guns and told us we needed to be careful of people who wanted to rob us. They were far more intimidating than anyone else we’ve met so far. Don’t worry, friends and family, we are not cavalier. We are careful to read people’s faces and sometimes we do indeed move along quickly to avoid something uncomfortable. It is just that, those aren’t the fun stories, and they take up far less of our time. So we don’t dwell on them. We are now in the charming northern city of Estelí, where everything is closed because it is Easter. Tomorrow we’ll go a bit further north to a cloud forest called Miraflor with 200 kinds of orchid and more than 200 species of birds. Then we’ll return to the heat of the Pacific coast once again.

Roadkill highlights: