My line of thought went completely bananas as I covered the last morning’s worth of kilometers to the Panama border, largely because of the dominance of the banana farms over the landscape. Bananas have been a constant feature of the landscape since the tropical areas of mainland Mexico, but here you got the feeling they went all out, they went full agri-industrial. So I ended up taking a couple of minutes to immerse myself in the banana industry at a packing facility next to the road.
The whole and freshly cut bunches of bananas enter the facility suspended from a vast farm-wide network of aerial monorails. The bunches are quickly pre-inspected and cut into smaller ´hands´ of bananas, which are then sent through washing pools. Workers retrieving the washed bunches remove individual bananas showing the slightest hint of a defect or blemish before the next station packs the bunches in what I judged to be 4 to 5kg boxes. From there it is straight into a refrigerated shipping container and once full heads directly to the harbour. I’d be surprised if it takes more than 2 hours for the bananas to go from tree to being trucked to the harbour and on it’s way to your local supermarket to be sold at a near giveaway price. The scale and efficiency of this global supply chain is beautiful to behold, especially from the point of origin. Nature also plays along nicely, as the bananas are so vividly green when packaged, they seem just short of the point of glowing like something from Homer Simpson’s nuclear power plant, but once they arrive at their destination they’ll be perfectly yellow and ready for the shelves of the first world.
I soon faced my own logistical challenges as I had a border to cross, a low key and decentralized affair as it was on the other side of the country far from the Pan American crossing. You really had to ask around to find out where to pay departure tax (still sounds like an absurd concept… paying to leave…), get stamped out and then repeat the process on the other side. I rusty riveted and long abandoned railway bridge spanned the vast river defining the border, adding an old world frontier feeling to the experience. Marvellous.
The positive contributions of the bridge, or rather the old railway track it was a part of, didn’t end there. I’d spotted a small road on Google Maps that turned out to be the road that superseded the railway line, with only a number of much smaller stream crossing still containing suggestions of tracks long gone, giving away the reason for the gentle curves and gradients. It was great riding, plunging me straight into backcountry rural Panama. Again, as seen further north, it was a case of blocks of forest having to make way for cattle pastures, with only the largest of the trees still surviving.
After a while back on the main road it was getting towards camp-O-clock, but no suitable places were presenting themselves amongst the thick jungle and hilly terrain. I decided to take a bet on a side road – this being a new country a level of uncertainty prevails in the beginning especially towards what is safe camping wise. To my dismay my side road was up a hill, and it kept on getting steeper. I persisted and was soon rewarded with houses and people living next to the road, and not a flat secluded spot in sight. Eventually I realized the game was up, so I asked some people if the road led to a school or church or village of some sort. Yes, came the reply. For which option I didn’t know. But after at least 2 Northcliff hills worth of further uphill I rolled into a smallish village, more dispersed than usual, but centered around a school with the usual late afternoon crowd of kids playing soccer. I spotted an adult and ended up being given a classroom to camp in. Upgrade. But it came with a crowd of kids watching my every move as I set camp and cooked supper. Eventually, well after dark, it dwindled down to 4 older boys, happy to invade my personal space and giggle like hormonal girls at a Justin Bieber concert at every slightest provocation. Such are the trade-offs of safe but public camping. But to be fair I can only imagine what I weird event this must be from their perspective, some sweaty gringo riding into their off the track village and sleeping in their school. Accompanied with all these amazing gadgets and stuffs. So I try to be accommodating as mymisanthropic personality will allow but that doesn’t change the fact that I think soccer is the most depressing and overrated sport in the world. They asked ok.
The next day started with a screamer of a downhill that added nothing to my overall tally of progress, and soon it was back to riding the demanding rollers just inland of the Caribbean coast. Here’s the thing about Panama, firstly it’s named after a hat, which I never saw anyone wear for the duration of my visit. Must be a seasonal thing as a saw way to many fat women wearing neon bikinis under see through body hugging and therefor bulging skimpy white getups. Secondly, Panama has only been around for a couple of million years or so, say 4.5 million, popping up from the oceans and in doing so causing a massive global weather change and the onset of an ice age. Sealing of the Atlantic from the Pacific ocean came with some consequences it turned out. But to my little world the biggest notice was the fact that it’s primary axis of orientation was dead east-west, meaning all of the riding I was doing was adding no further progress south.
One psychological upshot was that another Continental Divide crossing was up for grabs as the road inevitability swung inland to the Pan American running along the not too distant Pacific side. It was a decent climb and it started pouring down about halfway up. Since I was once again in crowd dispersing damp homeless person state, I welcomed the cleansing shower. It being the tropics I had no problem keeping warm despite the hour or so of getting drenched.
As the light was beginning to fade I finally reached the large dam I’d been aiming for all afternoon and was rewarded with shelter for the night on the porch of the visitors center, complete with security guard and howling wind to keep me company. It was fun securing, or rather trying to, my tent on the tiled floor which ruled out using stakes.
More windy riding followed the next day as I crested the Continental Divide and dropped back down to the Pan American highway. What should have been an easy couple of days into Panama City turned out to be a testing ride onto a gusty headwind, blowing me to a near standstill on occasions.
The cuisine along the road did little to lift the spirits. Unique to Panama, the village shops are nearly all owned and operated by Chinese immigrants. And in the typically fashion they are all nearly identical. Once you walk into one, you just needed a quick glance to see if the checkout counter is on the left or right, with the butchery counter then on the opposite side, and from there I could walk blindfolded to the shelf with chicken flavoured instant noodles, one of the view available food options to hungry cyclists. But mostly I lived of Coke and ice-cream as a result of the hot and windy conditions.
There was mayor construction on the Pan American highway but luckily it was in quite an advanced stage. For many kilometers I had a finished 2 lane highway completely to myself. Makes for safe but not exactly stimulating riding. This section of Panama, albeit dry-ish and almost looking like bushveld, was also the first large area in Central America where the countryside was largely undeveloped and empty.
After a couple of days fighting the wind and gaining ground to the north, I crossed the iconic Bridge of the Americas and rolled into the unexpectedly modern urban metropolis that is Panama City. This was quite an emotional moment as firstly it’s illegal to cycle over the bridge and the traffic is crazy, but also because Panama City marks the end of the Central American chapter of the ride, a huge milestone that has been beckoning on the horizon for months.
Euphoria was quickly replaced by reality. I had no place to stay and no plans of getting further south. The dominant topic of conversation between every traveller in this neck of the wood is how to cross the Darian Gap, the wilderness area between Panama and Colombia. No roads exist and the swampy jungle area is largely lawless and controlled by the drug cartels. It can be crossed by foot, a sharp machete and a pro tennis player swinging arm, but people have died trying. So crossing the Darian Gap is maybe not the correct phrase, it’s more like getting around (my sea) or over (by plane). In my case 2 considerations complicated matters: I had a bike, which always makes travelling with it, rather than on it, hugely hasslesome. Secondly the San Blas islands lies off the Caribbean shore of Panama, and all indications are that its island paradise personified. In fact all the stories and pictures of the place had me convinced I just had to see and experience it for myself. So emotionally I’d already committed to the sea route, and now had to make it happen.
As such I ended up in Luna’s Castle Hostal as they are the information and booking hub for all the different operators, and I ended up squatting a night in their movie room. The next day I was floundering around like a headless chicken, trying to make progress decision wise about booking a boat, as the numerous options came bundled with considerations and information delays (can they take a bike, what will it cost, leaving from where etc.) All this against the backdrop that I simply couldn´t afford to staying in the hostal for the amount of time this process will take. Then a glimmer of hope. A South African friend working on a yacht in the Caribbean had recently been in Panama unexpectedly and ended up staying with an ex-pact Spanish family she knew from the yachting world. In desperation I called them up and shortly after an unclear and mostly incomprehensible Skype conversation Jesus, Meritxell and young Jaime found themselves with a hairy South African invading their house. But how they looked after me, a complete stranger literally off the street?! Like royalty I tell you. It was one of the most memorable homestays, high up in the breeze of the 28th floor of one of the near countless residential skyscrapers that dominate the Panama City skyline.
After much wangling and scheming the decision on the yacht options became easier after I accepted that if I wanted to see the San Blas islands I´d be forking out a small fortune in comparison to my usual meagre spending. So mentally I repackaged the situation as a once in a lifetime experience, a slippery slope that one… The yacht that I ended up booking with was leaving a couple of days later than what would have been ideal, so Meritxell and Jesus was stuck with me a while longer still. That suited me just fine, as Jaime spoke perfect English and was an exemplary guide around the city, on foot and bike, Jesus kept the supply of cold beers going and Meritxell was a fantastic cook and committed foodie. In fact she´s combined these qualities and used them as the foundation to build her own company, Canal Gourmet, which resupplies boats and luxury yachts with premium quality food stuff. As she explained, the canal is the biggest stop sign on the world´s oceans, the ideal spot to resupply. With days to spare I could finally be of help as a new customer had placed an order that clashed with another delivery, so all extra hands were required on deck. Two days were spent procuring supplies from various suppliers and markets, repackaging them for delivery and finally doing the actual delivery. It was a really enjoyable and informative experience, as I could become briefly submerged in a world that I never even imagined existed. Meritxell received prompt and overwhelmingly positive feedback from the clients, so it was fun to have been a tiny part of a much bigger success.
Another rest day allowed me to cycle out to the famous canal locks at Miraflores. The visitor center does an admirable job of bringing the enormous magnitude of the Panama Canal to life, while deftly avoiding much of the social impact it had for Panama for many long decades. The US had basically seized all the land they needed around the canal to ensure its sovereignty and in doing so cut the country in half. For many many years it was all but impossible for a Panama citizen to visit the opposite side of his homeland. The treaty that allowed this was never signed by Panama, but hey, let´s not get carried away by the small legalities. The movie they screen is at least a bit more honest about the enormous cost of human life, most of the burden falling on black workers treated as disposable labour. Figures put the deaths of West Indian workers at over 4500, while 350 white Americans died. The official death toll was 5609 during the American period. That was nothing compared to the French period that claimed an estimated 22 000 souls. Thankfully times have changed and after a small revolt the canal is now operated very successfully by the Panamanians with a huge expansion project well under way with less grim consequences for human life. All in all it´s a monumental testament to human achievement, on both sides of the moral spectrum.
As time waits for no man, my departure date soon rolled around. Ahead of me was a 100km ride to the harbour retreat of Portobello lying on the northern Caribbean shore. This will obviously result in yet another Continental Divide crossing, always nice to notch up another despite having lost count of these events shorty after Canada. In Portobello I stayed with Miguel, a long-time friend of Meritxell and Jesus who is a character of note. Amongst other things and professions he directed a critically acclaimed movie about the Gunas, the locals that inhabit Guna Yala, as San Blas is actually known. It was Kuna Yala until not long ago, but as this is an independent or autonomous province in Panama, it seems they can do as they please.
I spent another day exploring around Portobello and then it was off to find the yacht that will take me to Colombia over 4 days, with a quick visit to paradise. Not much wrong with that I thought.